Members of a commission in Augusta are proposing the creation of a new rental assistance welfare program that would cost Maine taxpayers more than $182 million per year — or $500,000 per day.
The push for a new state welfare program comes as funding for the federally funded Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program expires at the end of November.
The program, which began under former President Donald Trump and was funded again under President Joe Biden, sent more than $270 million to landlords and hotel operators to help renters remain sheltered during the government lockdowns.
Now that ERA recipients are facing the prospect of paying their own rent again, some lawmakers and non-profit activists in Augusta want offering rental subsidies for the poor to become a permanent job for the state government.
The Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restriction was created in 2021 by a legislative resolve approved by Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat.
Commission co-chair Sen. Craig Hickman (D-Winthrop) is leading the charge for the new benefit, telling Maine Public that the alternative is a homelessness crisis.
“Now that those funds have dried up, I think that it’s critical that we think about how to fund a state-funded program because we know otherwise a large number of people will be becoming homeless because of non-payment of rent and utilities,” Hickman told the outlet.
“For us as a commission to recommend that the legislature consider establishing this program and figuring out a way to fund it that doesn’t drive up taxes is a perfectly reasonable thing,” Hickman said, according to MPBN.
Hickman did not say how the state would create a $182 million program to subsidize rent payments without increasing taxes.
Katie McGovern, a commission member who works for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, also supports the creation of a new state program to pay rent for low-income individuals, according to Maine Public.
The Maine Municipal Association, in a letter last week to the commission, warned of the consequences of the ERA running out of funding for municipal general assistance programs. MMA, which represents city and town governments, said a flood of requests for general assistance welfare could easily overwhelm small municipal offices and break their budgets.
According to MMA’s letter, there are nearly 15,000 individuals in Maine who may be affected by abrupt eviction if they can’t pay rent without government help, including 726 households in Lewiston, 872 households in Portland, and 944 households in Bangor.
Currently, there are more than 500 families, many of them asylum seekers and foreign nationals, living in hotels or motels with the government picking up the tab.
The Maine Housing Authority calculated that making the ERA a permanent state program would cost $182 million per year. That estimate is based on current program enrollment and does not factor in the growth the program could experience as word spreads that Maine will pay for housing.
The Maine Wire has asked the Maine Housing Authority precisely how many foreign nationals have benefited under the ERA program and would stand to benefit should the program become permanent. The story will be updated if those figures are provided.