Hundreds of new Mainers are running into what’s becoming a very old problem — the state’s lack of affordable housing.

That’s a challenge not only for the asylum seekers who have arrived here over the last few months, and those that are expected to arrive in the next few, but also for anyone who wants our state to progress and thrive.

The migrants, mostly from central Africa, came to Maine after passing through South and Central America and over the Mexican border, where they are able to request a destination while they await the adjudication of their immigration status. Based on word of mouth, many have chosen Portland.

But with housing so hard to find, particularly in Maine’s largest city, there’s no place to put them. City staff told councilors this week that 478 people were being housed temporarily by the city.

Unfortunately, they are finding out what it’s like to try to live here for far too many people. Even with the city of Portland paying, the migrants can’t find anything more than shelter space or a hotel room.

That’s similar to the situation faced by thousands of workers at the lower end of the earning scale. Unable to afford rents that are rising far faster than wages — the result of a failure to build more affordable housing — these residents are being pushed out of Portland and its immediate suburbs, as well as other city centers around the state. They have to live farther from where most of the jobs are, cutting down on the positions they can seek without significantly raising the cost of their commute.


That dynamic has been going for years. But it happens one person at a time, so it’s not quite as noticeable as when a few hundred asylum seekers arrive in just a few months.

Either way, we shouldn’t ignore it. As we’ve said before, asylum seekers, as human beings escaping circumstances unimaginable to most of us, deserve dignity and support. Maine has been generous with them before, and that generosity has been paid back — asylum seekers and refugees have added so much to the Maine communities they now call home.

And they are eager to work. While they need help getting settled — people seeking asylum cannot work or receive federal housing aid while they wait for official immigration status, a process that can take two years — asylum seekers eventually become a valuable addition to the workforce.

As Portland struggles to house the migrants, they should get whatever help they need. Taking care of asylum seekers now is in the best interests of all of Maine.

In addition, statewide policymakers should recognize that the housing shortage affecting the new Mainers is also a barrier for anyone looking to answer one of the many “Help Wanted” signs up around the state. Even if the workers have managed to obtain a rare federal housing voucher, something unavailable to the asylum seekers, there is a years-long wait for an apartment.

People can’t work if they can’t find safe, affordable housing near a job that is the right fit for their skills, experience and home life. Local and state officials should think about that when they bemoan the unfilled positions slowing business across the state.


Investing in housing is the same as investing in workers, just as our government invests, usually in much higher sums, in business development through tax breaks and other programs.

Gov. Janet Mills has pledged to use $50 million in federal COVID relief funding to help close the 20,000-unit affordable housing gap in Maine. A legislative task force is now debating how best to do that, including how to get reluctant municipalities to open up their zoning to more kinds of housing.

The goal should be a market robust enough to handle migrants and other immigrants as well as workers new to the area.

In all the important ways, they’re the same thing.

Comments are not available on this story.