AUGUSTA — The struggling economy is hitting both tenants and landlords as the city’s already-old housing stock ages, forcing low-income tenants to live in unsafe apartments they can’t afford and leaving landlords without enough money to make needed improvements.
Officials, tenants, landlords and others at a housing forum Tuesday described a housing situation in need of repair.
“The housing stock in Augusta is very old,” Code Enforcement officer Rob Overton said at a housing forum hosted by the city and Augusta Housing Authority. “Take a building built in the early 1900s, long before the existence of any of the life safety codes we have today, combine it with years of neglect, and you’ve got a recipe for very dangerous situations. We’re finding tenants in these buildings are very aware of the problems but feel they have no other options, so they remain there. We’re finding many different attitudes among owners. One is the inability to fix the buildings because of the cost. In many cases, you’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars. In very few instances, so far, are we seeing these conditions corrected. I’d like to say the housing stock is in better condition than it was 18 months ago, but I’m sad to say that’s not the case.”
Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, said the lack of affordable housing in the city is a near-crisis situation. She wants the authority to play a larger role in improving local housing beyond distributing federal Section 8 housing vouchers to low-income residents in the Augusta area. So she wants the quasi-municipal Augusta Housing Authority to expand its role by potentially getting into developing, rehabilitating, building and/or owning housing units.
Over the last year, 65 rental housing units were lost in Augusta, some to fires and others because they were shut down by the city for safety code violations. That has made housing for lower-income residents in especially short supply in Augusta, Bartlett said.
Matt Nazar, city development director, said those 65 units were spread over 12 buildings, which he said is a small number compared to the number of units inspected by the city but didn’t order closed.
Nazar said in some cases landlords appear to have walked away from their buildings rather than make repairs to bring their property into conformity with safety codes.
Dan Bernier, speaking for two local landlord associations that, together, have 900 members, said if actions are taken to drive down rents, it could make it even harder for landlords to bring in enough income to maintain and improve their buildings. He said if officials are going to spend money to improve housing, they should think about how much further it could go if they spent it working with local landlords, not on replacing local landlords.
Margaret Bean, deputy director of Maine State Housing Authority, said her statewide agency shares the Augusta Housing Authority’s goals of improving access to housing.
“The issues in Augusta are not different from the issues elsewhere in the state of Maine,” Bean said . “Low-income people aren’t making enough money to afford good apartments or good homes.”
She said the authority has created 777 housing units in Augusta.
Dean LaChance, executive director of Bread of Life Ministries, said the biggest unmet housing need in Augusta is more lodging facilities such as the organization’s Lawrence House, where people coming out of challenging situations, including homelessness, pay upfront by the week or month and get an affordable, safe, clean and dry place to live.
LaChance said the closure of many units in Augusta as a result of safety inspection problems probably will result in some landlords who can’t or won’t make the necessary renovations abandoning their buildings, fewer landlords taking tenants who pay their rent with Section 8 vouchers or General Assistance welfare money, and a shortage of rental housing in Augusta.
According to MaineHousing statistics, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Augusta, with utilities included, is $744. To be able to pay that amount of rent, a tenant would need an annual income of $29,763, according to a formula used by MaineHousing, a statewide housing finance agency.
Yet the median household income of renters in Augusta is only $23,878, which would make that household able to afford monthly rent and utilities of only $595.
Bartlett said the data shows nearly 60 percent of Augusta renters are not able to afford the average, two-bedroom rent of $744.
Bartlett said rents in the city are actually cheaper than rents elsewhere in the area, but incomes are also lower in Augusta, so tenants still can’t afford the rent.
There is a waiting list of about 675 people seeking Section 8 federal housing vouchers from the Augusta Housing Authority. But Bartlett said even with people waiting to get vouchers, last year 11 families gave up their vouchers because they couldn’t find a rental unit in Augusta that met Section 8 requirements.
Some housing authorities in other Maine communities play more direct roles than Augusta’s has over the last several years, developing and owning rental units.
City officials have said they would welcome the local housing authority playing a more active role in addressing housing needs, and the authority could tap into grants and other funding sources to help pay for housing projects.
The Augusta Housing Authority’s jurisdiction includes Augusta and all communities within 10 miles of the city. About 85 percent of its clients live in the city of Augusta.
About 100 people attended the forum, packing council chambers.
“The attendance here tonight sends a message loud and clear. The availability of safe, affordable housing affects us all,” Bartlett said. “A home is more than bricks and mortar. It’s part of us.”
Keith Edwards — 621-5647 firstname.lastname@example.org