Dec. 1—Responding to the state's lack of affordable housing will be among top priorities for Democratic leaders when state lawmakers return to Augusta next week.
Democratic leaders in the state House of Representatives and Senate said in a news release Thursday that they will create a joint select committee to address the state's housing crisis and an impending "humanitarian crisis" that could follow the expiration of a federal rent assistance program.
Approval on the Joint Select Committee on Housing is expected to be one of the first orders of business when the 131st Legislature convenes for the first time on Wednesday.
"The Joint Select Committee will work to create pathways to better lives for all Maine people who have found themselves in this cycle of crisis from renters, the unhoused, to homeowners," House Speaker-elect Rachel Talbot Ross, of Portland, said in a written statement. "We have an obligation to secure the highest quality of life for everyone who calls Maine home. By establishing this joint select committee we are acknowledging that housing is one of our top priorities."
The move comes after lawmakers last year approved a sweeping housing bill that, among other things, makes it easier to build duplexes and in-law apartments in single-family zones.
MaineHousing reports housing costs have outpaced average household income in almost every Maine county amid a shortage of houses for sale. Additionally, 41.5% of Maine renters spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing with many spending much more. Other concerns include the number of homeless Mainers and affordability issues for older homeowners and those living on fixed incomes, according to the news release.
The Joint Select Committee on Housing is expected to include three senators and 10 representatives. It will look to build off the work of a study group created by the previous legislature that issued its final report in November.
That group, called the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities by Studying Land Use Regulations and Short-Term Rentals, included lawmakers, experts and other stakeholders. It issued a series of 18 recommendations in its 222-page report, which new suggestions for new regulations on short term rentals, changes to landlord laws and calls for examining whether any publicly owned land should be used to build housing.
That report says the state is facing a humanitarian crisis with the expiration of federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance Program and ongoing housing crisis and a lack of housing units, especially affordable ones.
If federal funding is not renewed, people who are relying on the money to pay for hotel rooms or to help them keep up with rent payments for their apartments could become homeless.
The commission suggests investing $60 million of state resources into affordable housing construction and expanding a construction workforce development program.
The commission's recommendations also include: establishing a statewide emergency rental assistance program to replace the federal program, increasing the maximum amount of General Assistance reimbursements for housing and asking the governor to declare a state of emergency to allow for immediate GA reimbursements.
As of September 30, the federal rental assistance program had provided more than $275 million in aid to 33,719 Maine households and expended more than $275 million, the report states. That amounts to approximately $500,000 per day.
The commission also recommended making the state's subsidized housing program mandatory, rather than voluntary, meaning landlords would no longer be able to turn away tenants using housing vouchers. And they would look to cap application fees and examine the state law regulating so-called "no-cause evictions," a term that describes when a landlord declines to renew a lease.
The commission is also taking aim at short-term rentals, which have been blamed for contributing to the lack of permanent housing.
Recommendations include establishing a statewide, searchable database of short-term rentals; affirming a community's right to regulate STRs; redirecting some revenue from STR taxes to municipalities hosting such rentals; allowing STRs to have their own property assessment value; and doing more to support smart growth, which seeks to limit sprawl and encourage compact developments.
Senate Pres. Troy Jackson, of Allagash, said the housing crisis is a statewide problem that needs to be urgently addressed.
"Folks all across the state are struggling to find quality, affordable housing options that are close to work and are suitable for their families. It's adding to our workforce shortage and making it harder for employers to attract workers," Jackson said in a written statement. "Speaker-Elect Talbot Ross and I believe that the urgency of the situation calls for a Joint Select Committee on Housing. By creating a committee and dedicating resources focused solely on responding to Maine's housing crisis, I'm hopeful we can begin to see results."