On Sunday, we published a series of vignettes by Press Herald reporter Hannah LaClaire that charted the plight of renters around southern Maine. 

Our readers are by now plenty familiar with the topline figures: the proportion of Maine renters who are “cost burdened”; steady upward projections for Maine rental prices by the bodies tasked with monitoring them, and the median rent of a Portland apartment being out of reach of more than 70% of Maine households (that median rent figure, by the way, dates to 2020).

But the experiences of the seven renters profiled illuminate the many ways in which the current rental market eats away at people’s spirits. 

The unexpected end of a lease, once an irksome twist that forced a lateral move, today plunges the average Portland-area renter into complete uncertainty about their future. Families are split up – or brought under one roof that’s not big enough to comfortably accommodate everybody. Closet spaces become bedrooms. Moving on happens more than it should. And budgets are tighter than tight, with discretionary spending off the table, variable spending brought under punishing control and remaining fixed costs – gas, electricity, home heating oil, food – feared each month.

The seven people profiled find themselves walking a tightrope that thousands of Mainers are on. If rent increases, or other personal circumstances change – job loss, relationship breakdown, changed family circumstances – they’re out. And they do not know where they’ll go. One renter in Biddeford, where he lives with his daughter and her two children, told LaClaire that he had grown up in Kennebunk and expected he would be there all his life. Now he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be able to afford his new hometown. Now he knows nothing’s guaranteed.

The shortfall of available and affordable rental units, now hovering at about 25,000 in our state, will never be addressed at the current rate of building. As well as being painful for working-class people, it carries precipitous downsides for the local economy. 


In what feels to many a dark time, a glimmer of hope. Under the auspices of a newly minted joint select committee on housing, lawmakers in Augusta have put forward a bill proposing a one-time investment of $200 million, over two years, to increase the stock of affordable housing in the state.

Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, proposing the bill, characterized it this way: “My bill is designed to say that $20 million is not enough – $50 million is not enough. We have so many people who are in really desperate situations.”

Millett is exactly right. The current budget proposal (which is subject to change) sets out just $30 million for affordable and workforce housing construction. We all know the problem is far bigger than that. Investing a meaningful tranche of funding where it is most needed has the best chance of a good and lasting return; to invest in affordable housing is to invest in people.

This is the right way to approach the use of a historic surplus.

There’s no mystery as to how this rental market dynamic has come to deepen. Surveys tell us Maine is right now among the most moved-to states in the country, if not the most moved-to. Residential units have been snapped up by people capable of or accustomed to paying much more for rent than the average existing tenant. 

While lifting restrictions on zoning and use is important, cosmetic fixes will not offer a real, lasting way out of this reality. To give one example, Portland has already wrung its hands over short-term rentals and brought in a number of rent control ordinances (using the sickening seesaw of referendum-by-petition, a group of landlords in the city is currently working to unravel a provision of the most recently passed ordinance). 

Whac-a-Mole regulation of existing space just won’t cut it. There needs to be more space created, urgently, and it must be appropriate to the need.

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