October 29, 2013

Former Rep. Barney Frank to speak at Maine housing conference

Organizations that work on homelessness will gather to talk about ways to reduce the problem.

By J. Craig Anderson canderson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Organizations dedicated to reducing homelessness in Maine will have to change the way they operate in an era of dwindling state and federal assistance.

click image to enlarge

Tim Greenway/Staff photographer--- U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) adresses the crowd during the Maine Medical Marijuana Expo at Fireside Inn and Suites in Portland on February 26, 2011.

That’s the theme of an upcoming conference in Portland on the subject of affordable housing and homelessness, according to its organizers and scheduled speakers.

Speakers at the 2013 Maine Affordable Housing Conference, to be held Wednesday at Holiday Inn by the Bay, will include Maine resident and former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., Barbara Poppe, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness in Washington, D.C., and University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan.

Conference workshops will cover topics, including “New approaches and innovations in addressing homelessness in Maine,” “Building partnerships to end homelessness among veterans” and “Fair housing in an ever-changing world.”

Unless the U.S. House of Representatives shifts to Democratic control in 2014, federal assistance will continue to decline rapidly for affordable housing and other initiatives to reduce homelessness, said Frank, one of the event’s two keynote speakers, during a phone interview Monday.

Frank was invited to be a keynote speaker because he has long been an advocate for homeless and low-income individuals and families, conference organizers said.

During his 16 terms in the House, he supported programs to build and preserve affordable rental housing and to provide aid to local communities, they said.

As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011, Frank crafted a compromise bill to ease the increasing rate of home foreclosures, including a $550 billion industry rescue plan.

He also was a key author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the regulatory overhaul aimed at preventing a recurrence of the housing crisis, and the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act.

Frank completed his final term of office in 2012.

Regardless of which party is in control, the increased emphasis on paying off the country’s debts is likely to ensure fewer federal dollars will go to homeless assistance in the future, Frank said.

“It’s not a question of whether it will go down, but how rapidly,” he said.

More than 500 people sought emergency shelter last month in Portland, the highest number in the city’s history, according to reports from local shelters.

Frank said he wasn’t surprised about the unprecedented demand for shelter, given the economy’s slow rate of recovery, high unemployment rate and the rising cost of housing.

“When the economy’s bad, the most vulnerable people get hurt,” he said.

Conference co-organizer John Gallagher, director of the Maine State Housing Authority, said speakers and panelists at the event will focus on ways to make existing homeless assistance organizations more effective in light of the budget crunch.

“It’s obvious that federal and state resources are going to be harder to come by,” Gallagher said. “We’re going to have some huge issues to deal with, and the funding and resources to deal with them are going to be scarce.”

Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, the conference’s other co-sponsor, said he was looking forward to hearing from Poppe, the Obama administration’s top aide on the issue of reducing chronic homelessness.

The council she leads is responsible for coordination among the 19 cabinet-level agencies that deal with issues related to homelessness and affordable housing, said Payne, development officer at Avesta Housing, a non-profit organization based in Portland that manages nearly 1,900 affordable-housing units in Maine.

“Their role is in handling the federal response to homelessness,” he said.

Poppe plans to visits a number of homeless shelters in Portland Tuesday.

Colgan, professor of public policy and management at USM’s Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service, said he plans to talk about the outlook for housing in Maine and the state’s continuing “affordability issue.”

Although home foreclosures and prices have reverted to historically normal levels, he said, increases in the cost of housing have consistently outpaced wage growth in the state.

Another problem Maine faces is a deficit of about 30,000 jobs compared with the state’s employment base prior to the recession, Colgan said.

“The job market hasn’t picked up enough to go back to equilibrium,” he said.

Frank said increasing the availability of affordable housing would help prevent a repeat of the past decade’s housing bubble, which led to millions of foreclosures and nearly crashed the U.S. economy.

One of the major causes of the financial crisis was banks issuing mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford them, he said.

But outlawing those risky loans isn’t enough, Frank said. “You have to provide people with affordable rental housing.”

Mainers who want to see more federal funding go toward reducing chronic homelessness should write to the state’s congressional delegation and “support a higher level of taxation for the wealthy,” Frank said.

Registration for this year’s conference is closed. For more information, visit mainehousing.org/housingconference.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or:canderson@pressherald.comTwitter: @jcraiganderson
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