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November 29, 2012

Maine Voices: Sequestration would be devastating for low-income Mainers

By Greg Payne

PORTLAND — Previously little-used, the word sequestration was thrust into our daily parlance earlier this year when Congress passed the Budget Control Act to stave off the debt ceiling crisis.

But let's not forget the impact behind the buzzword: There are $1.2 trillion in indiscriminate federal budget cuts scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013, which would have devastating effects on Maine families.

The House and Senate say they'll work together to find an alternative.

But it's still unclear if that will be a balanced approach that includes new revenue and protects the spending needed to help the most vulnerable among us.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, sequestration would trigger an 8.2 percent cut to critical Housing and Urban Development programs.

Those include tenant-based rental assistance, Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships program, which is key to the construction of new, affordable homes.

According to the report, the cuts would have a disastrous effect on low-income people.

What does this mean for Maine? In short, more than 1,000 Maine families would lose their housing vouchers and face eviction.

If they became homeless, we would have a harder time helping them, since the cuts would also cost the state nearly $1 million in homeless assistance.

On top of that, Maine would lose $10 million to address public housing infrastructure needs and $1.3 million in Community Development Block Grant funding, a critical resource used by municipalities statewide to address housing rehabilitation and infrastructure needs.

These cuts would do real harm to our communities and our neighbors who are already struggling.

In Maine, nearly 40,000 renting families are extremely low-income (making about $18,500 a year or less), and yet there are only 20,228 units affordable and available for them, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

The gap between these numbers already makes homelessness and severe housing instability a mathematical certainty in Maine.

Unnecessary cuts to programs attempting to bridge the divide simply move us further in the wrong direction.

As has been well documented on these pages over the past couple of weeks, the city of Portland is already facing increasing numbers of Maine people experiencing homelessness.

Not only have our shelters gone over capacity, but our overflow shelters have as well, forcing the city to shelter dozens of our neighbors by sitting them in chairs in city offices overnight.

What would happen in Portland and around the state if hundreds more Mainers found themselves without a warm, safe place to sleep or care for their children?

These cuts would impact our most vulnerable neighbors: working families with children, the elderly and people with disabilities, including Maine's veterans.

And they'd exacerbate our state's growing poverty: The U.S. Census Bureau shows the number of Mainers living below the poverty level increased from 12.9 percent in 2007 to more than 14 percent in 2011 -- the kind of poverty Maine hasn't seen in a generation.

Earlier this month, more than 250 people from the affordable housing and community development arenas came together to discuss these issues at the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition's Housing Policy Conference in Portland.

From local leaders to state lawmakers and federal housing policy experts, the consensus was clear: the unmet need for safe, affordable homes is tremendous and growing, and yet the resources available to address those needs are shrinking.

Sequestration would further deplete these resources and move our state and our nation even further behind.

Maine's congressional delegation is playing a key role in negotiations around sequestration and its possible replacement with an alternative deficit reduction plan.

Seventy organizations from Maine have signed on to a letter, delivered this week, encouraging them to replace sequestration with a balanced deficit reduction plan that includes new revenues and does not harm low-income families and key community development resources.

Signers include a diverse group of private and public sector organizations, including architects, engineers, developers, investors, and housing and service providers.

While it is imperative that we reduce our nation's deficit over the long term, we need not and should not balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable.

Greg Payne of Portland is coordinator of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.





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