In the aftermath of the 2014 Portland fire that killed six young people, the trial of the building’s landlord, Gregory Nisbet, has been a landmark event — and the reaction to Nisbet’s acquittal last week on manslaughter charges in the deaths has been correspondingly intense.

But while people may differ over whether the verdict was fair, it’s indisputable that Maine has a statewide shortage of safe, affordable housing, and Mainers’ lives depend on government using all available tools to resolve this critical need.

The three-story Noyes Street duplex that burned Nov. 1, 2014, was in rough shape, its overall condition prompting complaints from neighbors and multiple visits from city officials before the fire. Smoke detectors were missing or disabled.

There was no alternate way out of the building from the two bedrooms on the third floor, where three people died. The secondary exit from the second floor was blocked, according to two survivors whose trial testimony included descriptions of making their way through smoke and heat to escape through a second-story window.

So why would anyone choose to live there? By all accounts, Nisbet was a laidback landlord who didn’t press tenants to pay the rent on time, making him a viable option in a city with a lot of low-wage service-sector jobs and few available rental units.

To address the affordable-housing shortage, Portland has enacted an ordinance that requires developers of market-rate housing to set aside units for moderate-income tenants or pay into an affordable-housing fund. In exchange, developers get incentives such as increased density, a reduction in fees or tax breaks for their projects.

But this is a problem that’s far bigger than Portland. In each county in Maine, according to a study of fair-market rents, people are paying anywhere from half to two-thirds of their monthly income for a place to live. And many of these places are probably as rundown as the Noyes Street property was, given the advanced age of Maine’s housing stock.

The housing pinch hasn’t gone unnoticed at the state level. Legislators voted earlier this year to streamline the process of applying for housing assistance. But getting help covering the cost of a rental unit doesn’t do much good if there are no places available to rent. To develop workable solutions, like Portland’s inclusionary-zoning ordinance, government must recognize that the free market isn’t equipped to provide enough affordable housing in the places where it’s needed.

Every Maine resident should have access to safe housing that doesn’t drain their budget. Officials in Maine’s largest city have taken a step in the right direction toward this goal — now policymakers in Augusta should follow suit.


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