The growing encampment called Tent City behind the Hope House in Bangor is one of the more visible symptoms of the city's growing homeless population. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Brian Pitman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maine and a member of the Maine Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network. Brenna Jones is a sociology and mathematics undergraduate at the University of Maine and is currently studying precarious housing through the McGillicuddy Humanities Center and Maine Policy Scholars Program. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university.

The U.S. is in the midst of a housing crisis, an issue also tied to stagnant wages and other factors. Even before COVID-19, researchers were discussing this housing crisis as imminent. In fact, some of the programs that emerged from COVID-19, like extended  unemployment, stimulus checks, the eviction moratorium, and the student loan payment pause, may have diminished the most harmful outcomes initially.  

Regardless, the housing crisis is in the public consciousness in Bangor. Since COVID, Bangor’s unhoused population has increased dramatically to  approximately 170 today, not including those currently living in shelters. City leaders have pursued a variety of different methods to address the issue, including: rezoning areas for tiny home parks; incentivizing developers to renovate older homes and buildings and changing zoning laws for the development of boarding homes, just to name  a few. They have also pursued more nefarious approaches, including  banning camping on public property when shelter beds are available, eviction, one-way bus tickets, and antihomeless  architecture.

We write to caution city leaders about the less nefarious solutions proposed. These appear to rely on the goodness of investors, landlords and others profiting from this crisis. The housing crisis will not be solved by solely relying on the free-market, which encourages solutions focused on increasing profits.  This is evident  across  the country.

Take for example the City Council’s approval of an ordinance for tiny home parks. What might this look like in practice? A local developer is planning a tiny home park with up to 400-square-foot units, at a cost of $1,000 to $1,500 per month, arguing this cost is “still relatively affordable.” For someone in Bangor to pay only 30 percent of their income towards housing, they would need to make $21.21 per hour full-time to afford an apartment at $1,103 per month. This plan does not constitute “affordable” for those experiencing homelessness, or for someone relying on Social Security and disability payments.

The ordinance, while diversifying the housing stock, will mostly serve real estate investors, developers, and landlords. It provides investors more opportunity to build condensed housing and provides landlords more units to charge rent for and profit from. It will likely push more people into precarity by increasing property values, average rent per square foot, and rents across the city, in addition to redefining the living quarters of the masses into cagelike  conditions.

The same can be said of redefining  zoning and providing developers with public money to renovate old homes into boarding homes. We fear that, coupled with the more nefarious approaches by the city, these policies will push unhoused people out further under the banner of increasing  “affordable housing.” We are also concerned that temporary shelter villages may result in similar outcomes, in addition to concerns that these serve “as an architecture of containment and banishment.” Evidence is limited and with little idea of the city’s desire and/or plan for implementation, it remains to be seen what these might look like.  

There are multiple things that can be done instead, though the city has indicated little interest  in pursuing those. Tying rent  control to minimum wage increases is a possible step. The elimination of application fees, security deposits, and background checks, as well as Airbnbs for those who do not live on the property of their unit are also steps. All of this can be tied to a Tenant’s Bill of Rights that goes beyond what Bangor  has discussed.

However, in the city’s defense, they cannot solve this alone. We need a nationwide investment in free public housing across the nation. It is the only long-term solution.