WESTBROOK — The city set its General Assistance allotments for 2020 last week, and once again, in an effort to keep rents affordable for those in need, it rejected the state’s maximum allowed for housing.

The city approved the maximum allotments in all other categories.

Westbrook is one of few Maine communities that reject the state’s recommended cost for housing, according to Harrison Deah, General Assistance community outreach coordinator.

“Once landlords know what the maximum is set at, that’s what they set their rent at,” Deah said.

When rent is high, it leaves little of a recipient’s overall General Assistant allotment for other necessities, like food and utilities, he said. Without a set maximum, Deah is in a better position to negotiate rent with landlords, he said.

The city’s General Assistance Office is located at the Westbrook Community Center. Chance Viles/American Journal

General Assistance is a “safety net for residents,” providing funds for basic needs to those who have exhausted all other options, according to City Administrator Jerre Bryant.

But the rising costs of housing complicates the equation.

“This is a situation where the cost of housing in southern Maine has accelerated so much that it is actually distorting the total GA allowances because the total a person is eligible for hasn’t moved to the degree housing costs have,” Bryant said.

When a resident receives GA money, the amount is based on how many people are in the household, with categories like household supplies and electricity getting portions of the overall funds received.

A household of one will receive $1,089 from GA in 2020, Deah said. If Westbrook adopted the housing maximum, the number that landlords base their rent on, rent would cost $1,035, leaving about $54 dollars for food, supplies, heating and electricity. The city didn’t approve any housing maximum. Without a maximum, Deah can negotiate with landlords for lower rents in the interest of the GA recipient, basing rent on what is left of the $1,089 after subtracting likely costs for the other categories.

“What good is an apartment you have if you do not have food or any of the other basic needs,” Deah said.

In 2019, Westbrook had 316 GA clients.

The maximum amount of financial assistance in each category is recommended by the state, and the City Council then receives a recommendation from Deah on what levels of funding to approve. Once the GA budget has gotten the council’s OK, the city pays for the assistance, with 70% of the funds reimbursed by the state.

In 2019, Westbrook approved $363,265 for GA, but only actually paid $81,549 after state reimbursement.

Deah said the GA allotment system is being discussed at the state level “to find a better way to set up and run General Assistance.”

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