March 29, 2020
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Wilson fellow addresses rural housing issue

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Every day, it seems, there is worsening news on the housing front.

Homes are going into foreclosure. Fewer residents are able to purchase a home. Senior citizens are having trouble locating smaller homes or apartments to live in while paying for food, medication and other needs.

Officials at The University of Maine at Presque Isle hosted a forum Wednesday evening featuring the founder of an organization dedicated to affordable rural housing.

Robert Wiener, the founder and executive director of the California Coalition for Rural Housing Project, was scheduled to address a crowd at UMPI while serving as its Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. Wiener’s organization has been the leading voice in California for the production and preservation of affordable rural housing since 1981.

According to its Web site, the coalition also advocates for housing at all levels of government before legislative and regulatory bodies and provides technical and organizational assistance to community groups and nonprofit agencies and educates the public on housing issues.

Under Wiener’s leadership, CCRH has successfully lobbied for millions of dollars in state housing assistance.

Wiener spent several days in The County before delivering his lecture, “Preserving Rural Life in Tough Times: Strategies to Combat Shelter Poverty and Stabilize Communities.” The presentation was part of the university’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.

“There is a housing crunch going on across the U.S, in every state,” he acknowledged Wednesday afternoon as he prepared for his 7 p.m. presentation. “But there are affordable housing projects out there that are working.”

Wiener said that he had spent some of his time in the area offering suggestions to help ease the housing crunch and planned to talk more about them during his lecture.

One such solution, he explained, could be self-help housing. The initiative helps those in low-income households to construct their own homes, and the family’s labor serves as the down payment on the home. The savings from the reduction in labor costs allows the family to own the home. Under the program, if families cannot meet their mortgage payments during the construction phase, the funds for these payments can be included in the loan.

He also said he planned to shed light on other possible solutions, such as Housing Trust Funds and Community Land Trusts. Both initiatives use various methods to provide secure affordable access to land and housing.

Such programs cannot function without a certain amount of support, Wiener acknowledged Wednesday.

“You can’t do this with just local resources,” he explained. “You need strong federal intervention as well, but federal resources have been shrinking since the 1980s.”

Before presenting his program, Wiener addressed students and community members about the value of education and social activism. He also joined community activists in Presque Isle to host a panel for area high school students on housing issues.

On Tuesday, he traveled to Houlton to deliver a presentation at the Houlton Higher Education Center.

“In this area of the state, there is decreased population, job losses and inadequate income,” Wiener said. “There is an affordability problem here around housing, but there are solutions. The solutions are out there.”

The college’s Visiting Fellows Program is sponsored by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and encourages the flow of ideas between the academic and nonacademic sectors of society. Fellows usually spend a week on campus speaking to classes and meeting informally with students, faculty, staff and community.


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