Low-income people would benefit greatly from passage of the green energy housing bond.

New green housing legislation from Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, is laudable for its ability to create construction jobs, stimulate the economy and promote greater energy efficiency within the state’s housing stock.

It’s a testament to its authors that this $60 million bond proposal could improve the state in so many ways at once, but we shouldn’t forget that the heart of this legislation is a commitment from the state to address an urgent need for housing.

Economic stimulus and energy conservation are important goals, but the shameful reality of the lack of affordable housing for lower-income Mainers is the best argument for this bill.

Last summer, a dozen volunteers with the Maine People’s Alliance surveyed more than 50 Mainers who were facing housing difficulties. The stories we collected speak for themselves.

A 32-year-old man from Westbrook told us he still ate at soup kitchens despite working two jobs. His high rent was about to force him from his home, and the only affordable options were much farther from his work. He worried that paying to commute would bankrupt him.

We talked to a 35-year-old woman who was disabled from a car accident and had just spent a difficult winter living in a friend’s car. She sought help for months, but found there weren’t enough accessible, first-floor apartments to meet the needs of Mainers with disabilities.

A young man in Bangor was working hard, but still couldn’t get ahead. “It’s really hard to come up with the first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit,” he told us. “When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s impossible to save up enough for the three. I keep trying, and even with two jobs I am still sleeping on my sister’s couch.”

A woman in Lewiston told a heartbreaking story about her experience being pregnant while homeless. She applied for assistance, but the long waiting list for affordable housing meant her baby was born without a home.

These stories were all told before the recent economic downturn.

The situation now is much worse.

Even when people who are struggling economically find affordable housing, they often are faced with new sets of concerns. Environmental hazards such as lead paint and mold are major problems in Maine’s low-end housing stock. Even when people find shelter, they’re not always safe.

It has also been chronically difficult for people facing poverty and homelessness to have their voices heard at the State House, and the results have been predictable. During the past 10 years, nearly $50 million has been raided from the state’s Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund to pay for other parts of the state budget. The actual loss of housing dollars is far greater than this number, since every million invested in the HOME Fund leverages $10 million in federal and private funds.

The green housing bond will provide the resources for housing construction. Securing and replenishing the HOME Fund is necessary in order to provide the shelter operating expenses, increased rental vouchers, support for seniors and people with disabilities, lead paint remediation and the many programs that make housing work. Together, these efforts could significantly help those Mainers who need help the most.

As the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Maine’s Energy Future heads into its work sessions on the green housing bill, I and my organization hope the committee will work to ensure the construction of a significant number of low- and very low-income units, as well as units designed for those with disabilities and supportive housing for Maine people who are currently homeless.

The economic and environmental benefits from this proposal are timely and well-received.

The immediate help for people all over Maine is essential.

Kate Brennan is the Housing and Worker Justice Organizer for the Maine People’s Alliance. E-mail [email protected] peoplesalliance.org

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