GRAY — I’m writing in support of the editorial in the Maine Sunday Telegram on May 31, “Our View: Homelessness is a state problem, not a local one.” But my contention would be that homelessness is both a state and a local issue, and here’s why.

In 1988 I was hired as the first executive director of an affordable-housing advocacy organization called the Cumberland County Affordable Housing Venture.

One of my tasks was to meet with town councils and planning boards in towns throughout Cumberland County to make the case for affordable housing, encouraging them to set up committees to study the issue, examine local ordinances to find ways to reduce development costs and build support for low-cost housing.

ALWAYS AN EXCUSE NOT TO BUILD

Solutions to make housing more affordable included smaller lot sizes, reduced regulatory requirements, lower fees, allowing manufactured and modular housing and use of available subsidies to help “buy down” the cost of developing and acquiring units.

In my meetings, I pointed out that as housing costs rose, young people who grew up there were often priced out of the market, as were the people who provided essential services: teachers, firefighters, police officers.

In town after town I heard excuses as to why affordable housing didn’t belong there. Rural towns said that having no public water and sewer made it difficult to squeeze in more units per acre. (Fair enough, but was 2- to 4-acre zoning really necessary?)

In Casco, I recall they cited steep slopes and poor soils that made it difficult to create housing density. (That was true in some areas of town, but not everywhere.) Cape Elizabeth said that its contribution to the region was open space, and that other towns needed to provide the affordable housing.

Every town was concerned that any affordable housing created would become a magnet for low-income undesirables (I guess like the aforementioned teachers, firefighters, police officers, etc.) from other towns, and wanted to restrict such housing to its own residents.

There was also a common stereotype that the people who needed affordable housing had scads of kids who would flood the school system, while the housing (being affordable) wouldn’t begin to pay its share of the property taxes needed to support them.

LOW-WAGE BUSINESSES ADD TO PROBLEM

This was an offshoot of the “welfare queen” myth that circulated in the 1980s and 1990s, an essentially racist fiction that painted those receiving public assistance as lazy, undeserving single mothers who sat around all day figuring out how to game the system. For the same reasons, virtually no town wanted affordable rental housing, unless it was for seniors (and preferably its own seniors).

At the same time, to broaden the tax base and ease the burden on homeowners to pay for everything, most of these towns were actively courting commercial development, including fast-food or big-box store chains that paid the minimum wage and employed a part-time workforce so they wouldn’t have to offer health insurance and other benefits – thereby ensuring that their struggling employees would require the very affordable housing town leaders refused to create.

Now, about 27 years later, it’s discouraging to see how towns’ resistance to creating affordable housing has played out, and this brings me back to the Maine Sunday Telegram editorial. Our affordable housing crisis is worse than ever, and homelessness has increased throughout the state.

IF TOWNS SAY NO, PORTLAND GETS BRUNT

Every time a town says “no” to affordable rental housing, it creates more pressure on Portland, because during the same period, the city has done more than its regional fair share. This includes housing designed for a wide range of people, including artists, the working poor who have low-wage jobs, people with disabilities and people who have a history of homelessness.

Portland should be showered with praise and gratitude by every town in Maine, not vilified for having a concentration of people who were effectively shut out of other towns.

Lack of access to affordable housing is a major contributor to homelessness. When people have to spend half or more of their incomes for rent, they aren’t able to build a cushion for emergencies, and then they’re just one small disaster (a car repair, an illness, an injury) away from losing their homes.

So yes, I agree funding homeless shelters is a state problem, but some of the long-term solutions belong at the local level. Towns across the state need to step up and create more affordable housing for their residents, instead of buying them a bus ticket to Portland in their hour of need.