Housing needs dire as city considers possible drop in community development funds

Posted March 01, 2011, at 8:35 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The state’s Economic and Community Development Department and several service center communities in Maine are taking a wait-and-see approach as federal lawmakers consider drastic cuts to a crucial program.

Last year, the state received $13.7 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under its Community Development Block Grant program. The program is meant to target three needs outlined by HUD: activities that benefit low- or moderate-income residents; activities that aid in the prevention or elimination of slums or blight; or activities that meet urgent community development needs, typically created by disaster relief.

If proposed cuts to the CDBG program go through (they were approved by the U.S. House last month), Maine’s share of funds could drop to $5.2 million.

Maine disburses its federal CDBG block grants in two ways. Service center communities such as Bangor, Portland and Lewiston receive a set amount of money each year based on population, need and other demographic factors. The remainder of Maine’s cities and towns can then apply for a portion of the rest of the state’s funds for specific projects.

“We’re holding applications so we don’t end up having egg on our face,” said Michael Baran, director of the state’s office of community development. “We don’t want to promise money to communities if we can’t make good.”

Economic and community development officials in Bangor are proceeding as if the city will receive the same amount it always received — about $1.1 million — but they understand that the program could be cut.

Since 1975, Bangor has received more than $40 million in federal CDBG funds. The money has been used to improve dilapidated housings, to repair sidewalks and to reinvent its waterfront, among other things. Some past projects that have benefited from Bangor’s CDBG funds include the Bangor Waterworks site, the Freese’s assisted living facility and the Park Woods transitional housing development. The program also provided assistance to small businesses that are looking to grow.

Last week, Bangor economic development officials met with city councilors and members of the public for the first of two public sessions to outline goals for how the city’s money should be used

Several advocates for the city’s low-income and homeless populations attended the meeting and all agreed that housing should be the top priority.

Sally Tardiff, executive director of the Shaw House, asked the city to consider funding a transitional housing program for homeless youth. Mike Bush of Penquis said offering funds for homeowners to make much-needed repairs to their homes would go a long way. Dennis Marble of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter and Mike Andrick with Hope House said lack of stable housing is the biggest contributor to homelessness.

Councilors asked whether the funds could be used to tear down the old Bangor police station on Court Street, which Councilor Gerry Palmer called a “disgrace to our city.”

If funding is significantly reduced, Bangor may not get a chance to address any of those needs.

The federal Republican Study Committee suggested defunding the program entirely. President Barack Obama favored a $300 million reduction, equivalent to 7.5 percent. The middle ground approved by the U.S. House on Feb. 19 was a cut of $2.5 billion, or 60 percent.

U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud of the 2nd District voted against the budget that included the CDBG cuts.

“I strongly support cutting spending to get our fiscal house in order … but setting budgets is about priorities, and it should be done through the lens of job creation and economic development,” the Democratic congressman said in a recent statement. “We need to reform and cut programs to make government more efficient, but we can’t afford to abandon investments we know will have a direct and positive impact on job retention and creation.”

The U.S. Senate is expected to debate the budget in the coming days and there could be amendments that scale back some of the proposed cuts.

Meanwhile, the city of Bangor plans to host another public hearing, likely in April, before it’s required to submit its plan to HUD by May 15. Rosie Bradley, assistant director of community development for Bangor, said in the event that Bangor’s funds are reduced, the plan would prioritize the city’s needs.

Anyone interested in providing feedback about Bangor’s CDBG funds can contact Bradley in the Community Development Office at 992-4241.

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