One Strong Woman Takes a Stand For More Affordable Housing in Maine

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Kelly Martineau first took action with Maine Equal Justice last spring when the legislature considered a bill to create a state-funded rental voucher program.  With courage and determination, Kelly shared her story about what it’s like to become homeless and spend years on a waiting list for housing while raising two children.

“My kids and I are very blessed to have a roof over our heads.  A friend has taken us in temporarily.  Nonetheless, her home is not ours, and I cannot afford for there to be an “ours”.  I can’t afford emotionally for us to go into a homeless shelter with the hope that that would get us a rental voucher sooner.  That would be disastrous for my children.

My parents told me I could do anything I wanted.   They told me I could be whatever I wanted.  I wanted to be like them.  My mom took over the family restaurant of 54 years My dad worked hard in the mill after he graduated high school.  They raised three children.  I wanted that.  That no longer exists...”

Kelly gets at what so many people are feeling right now.  No amount of hard work guarantees that families can meet their basic needs these days.  With Kelly’s help, we’ve been taking a hard look at the issue of affordable housing in Maine.  We know that affordable housing is central to the health of any community.  Access to housing effects everyone’s ability to get and keep a job, keep our kids safe and healthy, find success at school and live the dignified life we all deserve.  In a recent Bangor Daily News piece, Sandy Butler talks about the problem of affordable housing in our communities.  Sandy is a professor of social work at the University of Maine. She and Kelly met earlier this year and Sandy wrote a piece in the Bangor Daily News about the issues of housing and homelessness through Kelly’s story. Sandy writes:

“Our homes are where we take refuge, where we gather our resources to go out into the world to do what we need to do, knowing we can return to the safe haven at the end of the day.  While not all homes are safe from abuse, most of us are fortunate to have homes we can count on to be warm and protect us from the elements so we can raise our families and engage in leisure and creative activities.

That is, unless we can’t find a home that is affordable.  For many Maine households, that is becoming increasingly difficult, according to the recently released report of the Affordable Housing Working Group.

The Maine Legislature established this working group last year to examine the extent to which extremely low-income households — those earning less than 30 percent of the area median income, or about $15,000 per year — lack access to safe and affordable housing.Currently, more than 75,000 Maine households, or 13 percent, are considered extremely low income.  Most of these households are renters, and their prospects for finding affordable housing are indeed bleak.  According to the affordable housing report, the average two-bedroom rent in Maine in 2014 was $872.  For a full-time worker, it would take an hourly wage of $16.71 to earn enough to afford this rental home.  With wages decreasing in the state and rents increasing, we have a real problem.”  Read more here.

We can all agree that Maine people should be able to afford housing and still have enough money for food and other basics.  While our efforts to establish a state-funded rental voucher program last year were not successful, the Maine Affordable Housing Working Group that Sandy mentions was a concrete victory.  Kelly Martineau and MEJP’s Chris Hastedt were both appointed members and worked hard to push forward policy ideas that would address the housing needs of extremely low-income households in Maine.  Thanks to Kelly and Chris and the work they did with Maine Housing the legislature will consider a bill shortly that addresses some of the Working Group’s recommendations for better housing options for people with extremely low incomes in Maine.

The Working Group report also calls attention to the fact that while Maine is fortunate to be one of 47 states with a Housing Trust Fund, a dedicated source of revenue meant for affordable housing; large amounts of those funds have long been diverted to balance the state budget.  It calls for all of Maine’s HOME Fund monies to be restored and used for their intended purpose—to make housing more affordable for Maine people.  But the report alone will not achieve that goal.

We must build an advocacy campaign to persuade lawmakers to keep HOME Funds for housing. The way forward to achieving our immediate policy goals and our vision of safe, affordable housing for all Mainers is to involve people from communities across the state in our campaign.  People like Kelly Martineau, a leader with the personal experience and vision for how we can make housing affordable and accessible for all. 

While there is still much work ahead to ensure safe and affordable housing for all Maine people that need it, the recommendations in the bill are an important first step.  The legislature’s passage of the bill would signal recognition that people with low income indeed face a housing crisis and would show a commitment to solving it. 

A public hearing will be scheduled in the next few weeks on the legislation recommended by the Affordable Housing Working Group.  Watch for legislative alerts from Maine Equal Justice on this issue.  If you would like to help support this bill, please contact Kate Brennan at Maine Equal Justice.  She can be reached at 207-626-7058 or kbrennan@mejp.org.

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