EDITORIAL: How to fill an immediate need for Maine housing

·3 min read

Jul. 1—Maine's affordable housing crisis hits every part of the state and residents at nearly every income level. It's the result of policies left stagnant for decades as the problem grew. To solve it, it'll take a willingness to do new things.

To that end, a Portland-area coalition has put forward a promising plan for dealing with the families of asylum seekers who continue to come to the area seeking refuge from violence and corruption.

Not only does the plan have the potential to save communities millions of dollars, it also would give recent arrivals a better start to their new lives.

And it doesn't have to stop with migrants from abroad. The new housing, planned by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, could also one day offer a safe, reliable place to stay for anyone coming to the area hoping for a fresh start.

GPCOG, a coalition of 25 communities in southern Maine, announced this week a capital campaign to raise money for the project, which aims to provide some transitional housing in some form for asylum seekers at a number of yet-to-be decided locations. Families will likely be able to stay for a year while they get settled and find work.

One option being discussed involves using pre-manufactured "tiny homes," placed together in bunches to form little neighborhoods. Tom Bell, a spokesman for GPCOG, said Thursday that the ultimate choice could also involve other forms of housing, including using existing buildings somewhere.

The new housing would replace the hotel rooms that are now rented out for asylum seekers, who have been coming to Maine from sub-Saharan Africa, by way of the southern border, for years now. As of Wednesday, Portland was serving 290 families, comprising more than 1,000 individuals, straining capacity, and adding stress not only for public officials but the asylum seekers themselves, who must wait to obtain the right to work and thus cannot support themselves upon arrival.

Tiny homes, which would measure 357 square feet and include a bathroom and kitchen, cost about $45,000 each and can be installed in a day. The cost to support a family in each home would be about $1,300 a month, compared to the estimated $12,000 a month now it costs to house asylum seekers in hotels.

The plan would save communities $3 million in the first year and $30 million in subsequent years, the organization said.

Any sort of grouped housing also help create conditions such as those that occurred in Brunswick in 2019, when officials secured for asylum seekers two dozen homes in one neighborhood, near services and amenities, forming a strong community and allowing for the more efficient delivery of services. No doubt that helps asylum seekers establish themselves and contribute to Maine's future, as so many already have.

But tiny homes, and other creative housing solutions, such as boarding homes, can be used in other ways, as well. There is a lot of opportunity for working-class Mainers in the Portland regions as well as near the state's other major metro areas. But the high cost of housing and transportation can easily keep someone from pursuing those opportunities, which has cut off options for workers and left jobs unfilled.

So wouldn't it be great if there were low-cost, low-barrier housing options near where people work and go to school, or at least with access to public transportation? Six months in a tiny home could give someone from rural Maine, or from another state, a chance to move here and start working right away while they look for more permanent housing.

Of course, they'll need permanent housing to move into, which means it's important Maine continue to loosen zoning rules and otherwise incentivize the building of more housing of all kinds.

But tiny homes, and other kinds of transitional housing, can fill a basic, immediate need, and give people the chance they need to better their lives.