Gov. Janet Mills has instructed Mainers to stay home, but what about those without a home, or those at risk of losing it? That is the hole in Gov. Mills’ strategy to protect the people of this state from COVID-19.

While we have been ordered to stay home, the banks and landlords have not been ordered to guarantee us safe shelter. The governor’s executive order includes jail time and fines for people who do not follow the order, yet there are no penalties for owners who deny people their homes during this public health emergency.

Overall, Mills is doing an excellent job in leading Maine through this moment, acting on the science and guidance of the Maine Center for Disease Control. Most importantly, she offers well-reasoned explanations for each executive action that she takes. Central to the strategy of containing COVID-19 is physical distancing in our private homes. But how will the governor ensure every Mainer has a home in which to quarantine?

Craig Saddlemire

Before COVID-19, Maine was already experiencing a severe housing crisis. More than 2,000 people were homeless, over 450 eviction cases were filed each month and there was a shortage of more than 22,000 affordable homes.  The statewide stay-at-home order was declared just before rent and mortgage payments became due. Now thousands more families are losing work, health insurance, child care, meal access and vital services. The result will be missed rent and mortgage payments, leading to new debt, eviction, foreclosure and more homelessness.

The governor can act to prevent all of that, and she must begin by promising the people of Maine that ensuring safe homes to quarantine takes priority over other interests. That declaration must include homeowners, the homeless, tenants, the incarcerated, the undocumented and detainees alike. The health of every individual — no matter their social status — affects the health of everyone else. That is the first thing we must learn from this global pandemic, if nothing else.

After announcing the stay-at-home order, Mills acknowledged that supporting the homeless was a critical need, but was silent on other housing measures. Having met with some landlords and banks, she seemed comfortable with their pledges to self-regulate. If average people won’t stay home to save our collective lives without an executive order, what more can be expected of for-profit landlords and banks?

People in homes backed by state and federal programs enjoy reasonable protections, but most families are left to fend for themselves in the private market. We already know that legal and illegal evictions are happening across Maine right now. Court closures delay the eviction process, but this is little comfort to families choosing between food, hygiene products and medicine. Some evictions are not even initiated for nonpayment, so much as clearing out tenants for new economic development plans.

Some individual landlords and creditors are voluntarily suspending and forgiving missed payments to keep people in their homes. That is admirable, but it doesn’t address the overall system of real estate capitalism, which — as a general operating principle — exploits instances of high demand and scarce supply to maximize private profit. That is what created our initial housing challenges and this moment is no different, it’s simply more extreme.

Government failed to protect people in the economic recession of 2008. Despite causing the recession, banks were bailed out and eventually made record profits, while regular people lost their homes and became bankrupt. The result was a wave of evictions and foreclosures, leading to massive reductions in homeownership and greater concentrations of corporate control of our homes.

The physical and economic damage of COVID-19 will be worse. After so many lessons learned, do we still trust real estate capitalism to decide the fate of our shelter?

We must reframe our thinking to understand that housing is a human right and necessity — like food, air and water. Our homes are where we raise our families, seek refuge and recover from illness. The governor has a responsibility to protect and ensure that right for all Maine people. The mayors of Portland, Lewiston and the director of Maine Housing have taken important steps to assert this right. Other states and cities have gone further, enforcing moratoriums on evictions and mortgages.

Comprehensive solutions must also include canceling rent, canceling debt and providing cash assistance to small businesses and landlords according to need.

Unlike the 2008 crisis, the cost of this must be absorbed by our wealthiest corporate owners and financial institutions, as they are the only ones who can afford it.

We need Gov. Mills’ decisive leadership on this issue. It is not a matter of ability, but of political will. When the Legislature reconvenes, we need permanent actions to ensure a safe home for every person in Maine, today and beyond this crisis.

Craig Saddlemire is the manager of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative in Lewiston. He works with low-income and working class residents to maintain and operate their multi-unit homes together.

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