BANGOR, Maine - Shawn Yardley is bracing for a busy winter.
The director of Bangor Health and Community Services expects an influx of people needing help with housing at the top of their list.
And it’ s no wonder. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine stands at $779 a month, not including utilities, according to a report issued in April by the Maine Center for Economic Policy. The national economy by all accounts is still lagging. So Yardley anticipates his staff, who deal primarily with General Assistance, will see many new applicants needing help with rental or mortgage payments.
“There’s so many pieces to this that not even full-time employment can help people meet those needs,” Yardley said in a recent interview.
In 2007, Maine received more than $75 million in federal rental assistance, according to MaineHousing, formerly known as the Maine State Housing Authority. The bulk of that money was used to subsidize housing developments and provide vouchers that helped cover rent costs for an estimated 50,000 Maine households.
The typical low-income Mainer has three primary sources for housing assistance: Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8 federally funded subsidized housing and municipal General Assistance. All three have income eligibility guidelines that must be met before assistance is given. A fourth kind of housing assistance provides help to people with special needs, such as homeless or domestic violence victims.
Johnnie Walker, transitional services coordinator for Spruce Run, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, helps people from a variety of economic backgrounds navigate the complexities of the application process for the various programs.
“There are a lot of programs but not a lot of availability,” she said in a recent interview. “Because of that, people coming into the shelter are given a thick package of applications to fill out within a day of arriving so that eligibility can be quickly determined.”
Even after negotiating the application process, eligible families could find themselves facing a wait of as long as eight or more months, depending on the location, because there aren’t enough resources to meet the statewide need.
In Maine, Section 8 is the largest housing assistance program and one of the best known. It provides
two kinds of vouchers.
One type is issued to individual households and can be used toward rental costs on the private market, which means they can rent the apartment or house of their choice.
The other type is project-specific, which means a voucher is attached to a specific housing complex.
Vouchers are issued by local housing authorities, such as the Bangor Housing Authority or Penquis, a nonprofit agency that assists low- and moderate-income individuals and families primarily in Penobscot, Piscataquis and Knox counties. The vouchers are mobile in that recipients may use them to rent acceptable apartments or houses on the private market.
Last year, MaineHousing received more than $70 million from HUD for its Section 8 program, the bulk of which, $55.4 million, was used for project-based vouchers toward rent for apartments in housing projects occupied by 39,000 to 40,000 low-income households, said Dan Simpson, spokesman for MaineHousing.
MaineHousing received another $17 million for individual vouchers, Simpson said. MaineHousing handled 3,500 such vouchers statewide last year. Public housing authorities around the state issued another 7,800 vouchers.
Section 8 voucher recipients generally pay 30 percent of their income toward rental costs, though the maximum percentage can be exceeded in high-cost markets.
For example, a person earning $2,000 a month renting a home at a cost of $900 a month would pay $600 and the voucher would cover the difference of $300.
To be eligible, households must earn no more than 30 percent of the median family income for their area. To that end, income limits vary.
According to MaineHousing’ s current income limits, a family of four living in the Bangor area, where the median income is $57,200, would be eligible for a voucher if they earned less than $17,450. In Aroostook County, where the median income is $43,500, the limit would be $14,800 for a family of four.
Statewide, the Section 8
program is helping put housing within the reach of almost 12,000 families, according to a report issued this spring by the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
MCEP estimates the need is twice that.
“I refer to it as the ‘ golden ticket,’ ” said Walker of Spruce Run. “It means the difference between having to struggle hard to pay for housing and making it.”
But Walker said housing vouchers are scarce. “Even when you do qualify, you usually are put on a waiting list,” Walker said.
Bangor Housing Authority has not been able to issue Section 8 vouchers since December, according to Brenda Brown, assistant executive director. She said last week that it was not clear when funding would be available for additional ones.
Some of the waiting lists are lengthy.
“It depends where you are,” Simpson said. The wait for a voucher, he said, “tends to be higher in Bangor and Portland, but might be shorter in less-populated areas with less demand, like Presque Isle.”
Public housing developments receive financial support from a variety of federal programs. The developments are operated by MaineHousing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as by local housing authorities, such as the Bangor Housing Authority, and regional agencies such as Penquis and the Washington-Hancock Community Agency.
Similar income limits apply to subsidized housing, largely because many are funded with Section 8 money.
Eligibility rules can be set locally, and some housing authorities have established priority lists for families that are homeless or local, or for senior citizens.
Those in need of emergency housing assistance can apply for municipal general assistance, funded entirely by state and local dollars.
“It is the program of last resort,” Cindy Boyd, the state’ s program manager for general assistance, said.
Everything is administered at the municipal level, usually at town offices. Potential clients come in, fill out an application and find out within 24 hours whether they will receive assistance.
Applicants are asked to list all sources of income, all expenses, and whether they have any money in the bank or other noncash assets. They may apply only at the city or town where they live.
During the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, $9.8 million was spent on emergency aid across Maine.
The state’ s Department of Health and Human Services reimbursed those cities and towns $6 million, based on how much they spent, Boyd said. In most cases, municipalities were given back 50 percent of the funds they spent on general assistance. In some cases, where the need is especially high, the state pays 90 percent. That threshold is calculated by multiplying the municipality’ s state valuation by 0.003.
Help with paying the rent or mortgage typically takes up a large share of municipal general assistance funds. From July 2006 to July 2007, the city of Ellsworth gave $12,082 to help with housing out of a total of $18,496 granted. In Bangor, housing needs make up about 80 percent of general assistance.
There also are options for people with special needs, such as homeless individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or for victims of domestic abuse.
? The Bridging Rental Assistance Program is a statewide housing subsidy program developed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to help people with mental illness access safe, sanitary housing of their choice. It is designed to provide temporary aid until recipients are awarded a Section 8 voucher.
? Shelter Plus Care is a federal program that provides rental assistance which, when combined with social services, gives supportive housing for homeless people with disabilities and their families. It is administered regionally by such groups as the Shalom House in Portland, Community Health and Counseling, and the city of Bangor.
? Rental Assistance Coupon Plus provides housing assistance for up to two years with preference given to homeless families and individuals, domestic violence victims and those referred by correctional caseworkers or probation officers. Participants must be willing to abide by “personal responsibility contracts” in which they commit to taking steps toward self-sufficiency.
Yardley of Bangor Health and Community Services said the housing situation for many Mainers is uncertain in the immediate future. He said many Mainers are still reeling from the high cost of heating their homes last winter. Some are unemployed or underemployed. Others have fallen victim to the current crisis in the nation’ s home mortgage market.
He calls this confluence of circumstances “the perfect storm.”
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” he said, after a recent gathering of the region’s housing assistance providers.
“There are a number of people who [have come to the city for help with housing and who] are maxed out on their credit cards. It’s a cushion, a false cushion. They’re mortgaging their future, hoping that things are going to get better.”
The fifth installment
of the Welfare in Maine series, which will cover education and job training assistance, will run Monday, Aug. 11.