The COVID-19 pandemic, destabilizing as it has been, did not arrive into a functioning housing market.

Enzo Gelestino, 51, right, stands outside a school bus he has been converting into a home for his two school-age children. Evicted from an apartment in Lewiston, he has been using his disability income to buy materials for the conversion. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal, File

Things took a bad turn in 2018. Across America, supply was already a mounting problem. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the U.S. was short about 7 million affordable homes for low-income renters that year; just 35 affordable rental homes were available for every 100 low-income households.

By 2019, more than 20 million American renter households were what the Department of Housing and Urban Development calls “cost burdened” – that is, households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing. All the while, nationwide, the price of rents continued to rise, the pain of which was shouldered by the most economically vulnerable communities.

But not until the pandemic struck did federal or state authorities move to meaningfully protect the then already-struggling American renter, quickly conjuring up assistance with rent and moratoriums on eviction.

As we appeared to move out of the pandemic, those protections were withdrawn. To have made them contingent on the pandemic is to have missed the bigger, far more difficult picture.

The very sheer “cliff” that gets referred to by policy people – in full view all along, we’d argue – now has an increasing number of households careening over its edge. Here in Maine, two reports published in the past week offer some indication of just how bad the situation now is.


The Press Herald’s Megan Gray painted vivid scenes of eviction cases heard at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Sunday’s paper. “By October, the number of eviction filings statewide for the year had already surpassed the 3,896 during all of 2021,” Gray wrote.

A lawyer who represents tenants told her that the courtrooms simply weren’t big enough for the number of people currently being evicted.

According to a June study by Harvard University, the proportion of Maine tenants who are “cost-burdened” is more than 41%. According to Maine Housing, the state is between 20,000 and 25,000 affordable housing units short of what’s needed.

When people are evicted in such a housing market, they have no place to go.

The Sun Journal of Lewiston published another powerful piece, as part of its series on homelessness, on the same day. Headlined “A bus for a home,” the report told of 51-year-old Enzo Gelestino and his family, who have been homeless for more than a year in Lewiston. After being evicted from his apartment and realizing an open-ended motel stay wasn’t financially feasible, Gelestino converted a school bus into a home for himself and his two school-age children.

So scant is the available rental stock right now that no movement at all is possible, anywhere; even if you want to find a new place to rent, you likely can’t; a complete dead end is then what’s facing renters who cannot make ends meet.


Even then, Gov. Mills’ “heating assistance bill,” which contains what Mills has called a “lifeline” for as many as 3,000 Mainers imminently at risk of eviction, was scuttled in the Senate. Around Maine, shelters are at maximum capacity. Local safeguards are few and far between.

Why have we done such a poor job of preparing for something we could see coming?

It’s a failure that exhibits reckless indifference to people in crisis. It’s why so many of us double down on the style of support that is in our control, particularly at this time of year: donating to individual people, families, local housing initiatives and charities. It’s well intentioned, and it helps, but it’s become all too significant because of shameful systemic failure – and, even at its most generous, it will be nowhere near enough.

To quote Judy Meyer, executive editor of the Sun Journal, earlier this week: “You know how else you can help? Tell your city official to stop talking and start doing.”

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