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.
Kelly Martineau, a member of the Affordable Housing Working Group, knows this problem intimately. Her housing instability began four years ago following a divorce while raising two children with special needs. When her husband left, Kelly moved back “home” to Dixfield where she could afford housing but soon realized she could not remain in that rural area, given her children’s acute needs. Both children have been diagnosed with autism. As a result of mitochondrial disease, her son, Tucker, also has had lifelong problems with eating, relying on a feeding tube. Kelly moved to Topsham, where she knew her children would have better access to the health care and special education services her children needed.
During her two years in Topsham, Kelly began pursuing a college degree in political science, a field she truly loves. But this past summer her life took another dramatic turn. Her landlord sold the house she was renting just as her son was accepted into a two-month specialized feeding program at Emory University in Atlanta. Kelly knew she had to take advantage of this opportunity to save her son’s life, despite not knowing where her family would live when they returned. While insurance covered Tucker’s intensive treatment, the travel, rent in Atlanta and co-pays came to over $16,000. Family and community fundraisers helped defray expenses. Thankfully, the treatment was successful and Tucker’s feeding tube was removed this past November.
Kelly and her children were homeless when they returned but were able to move in with a generous friend in Durham temporarily while Kelly looked for a place to live. Through the McKinney-Vento Homelessness Waiver program, her children are able to attend their own school in Topsham without disruption, though Kelly will need to find housing in the school district by June. She says rents in Topsham have increased by hundreds of dollars since she lived there before. Kelly has a chronic back condition restricting her ability to work and has not been able to return to school because of the special care her son needs.
Clearly, Kelly is a devoted mother who puts her children’s health and well-being above all else. Divorce, disability and the need to be near specialized services for her children have led to her housing instability. Her story is only one version of what faces the thousands of other households in the state who cannot locate affordable housing.
The Affordable Housing Working Group report provides several legislative proposals that should be taken up immediately and implemented as soon as possible by MaineHousing: expanding the supply of quality, affordable housing; designing a rental assistance pilot program; and removing impediments to full utilization of existing rental assistance programs.
There are harsh consequences to housing insecurity, including deteriorating health, family separation and poor school attendance. Ultimately, the costs to the state increase the longer individuals and families lack secure and affordable homes of their own.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.