I believe that adequate, safe housing is a fundamental human right — a right that must not be infringed or denied to any person based on their color or caste. However, as with many of our fundamental human rights, society has tested its boundaries.

The affordable housing crisis in Maine has proven urgent and pervasive. No matter where in the state we live, we cannot deny that there’s simply not enough supply of housing to meet demand. Prices for existing homes continue to rise dramatically. The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition estimates there is a shortage of approximately 20,000 affordable rental units with an average of only 230 new units being built each year. 

To add insult to injury, there are over 25,000 Mainers on the waitlist for rental assistance. This dynamic creates a vicious cycle where potential buyers who can’t afford to acquire property in this sellers’ market are pushed back into a strapped rental market.

This problem is personal. Weekly, I hear from people in my community directly impacted by this crisis. Whether their career took a turn during the pandemic and they lost access to housing, or their minimum-wage job does not allow them to afford what little housing is available, the sense of desperation I hear in their voices breaks my heart.

Thankfully the Legislature is committed to do all that we can to confront this crisis and craft solutions as soon as possible. My purpose as a lawmaker has always been to create equitable and just public policy that recognizes the dignity and worth of every human personality and moves us to a place where all Maine people have the social and economic opportunity to be free. Working with my colleagues to address the affordable housing crisis allows me to continue fulfilling this purpose while addressing one of the most vital issues of our time.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has identified 41,454 households in Maine as extremely low income. In other words, 27% of renter households fall into this category. Fifty-eight percent of those extremely low income households spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. This is unacceptable. Since 2012, median house prices have increased faster than median incomes. This is unsustainable. In order to close these gaps, we need to take rapid action to update our housing stock and ensure that we have enough affordable units to meet demand. This crisis touches everyone, and it’s way past time that we take decisive action to correct course, lest we see more people living on the street all over the state.

These blatant flaws in our system are not the only practices that infringe on our right to housing. For decades, all across the country, we have seen exclusionary zoning practices designed to keep communities segregated and affluent. Whether it’s through minimum lot sizes or outrage over the construction of new affordable housing units, we must take bold and decisive action quickly to break the foothold these practices have on our communities. The system in place is simply not working for everyone, and it remains our moral imperative to ensure that all Mainers can stay in their communities without losing their shirt. 

Lawmakers from every part of the political spectrum recognize this need. That is why House Speaker Ryan Fecteau sponsored emergency legislation this session to create the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions, of which I am honored to serve alongside him as Senate Chair.

At the end of the commission’s work we will make bold recommendations to the Joint Standing Committee on Labor and Housing, which I am also honored to serve as Chair. We believe these recommendations will best protect the fundamental human right of safe, affordable housing for all Maine people. In our final three meetings, we will continue to review data about our housing crisis in Maine, the laws governing the local regulation of housing, and look to other states and their programs for guidance on how we can combat housing shortages by reforming zoning and land use restrictions. We will also consider measures that would encourage a much needed increase in housing options in the state. We will review and consider the historical role of race and racism in zoning policies, and the best measures to ensure that state and municipal zoning laws do not serve as barriers to racial and economic equality.

In this stead, we will continue our march toward freedom and justice for all.  

Craig Hickman is a Democratic state senator from Winthrop.

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