For weeks, labor, climate, and housing organizers in Maine had been collaborating on a bill for a housing bond. When the Biden administration dropped one of the largest buckets of money into the state budget in decades through fiscal recovery funds as part of the American Rescue Plan, these advocates saw a new opportunity to fund their priorities.
So they set their sights on securing $100 million in ARP funds for more affordable housing with higher labor and energy standards.
There were a lot of priorities to juggle, Cate Blackford of Maine People’s Alliance said. The coalition had a hardline: “We would not compromise on labor or efficiency standards or on ensuring the new housing would serve those who needed it most,” she said.
It was especially difficult to navigate how to strengthen work standards for the new housing projects. “Because finance packages are so complex, adding in any additional requirements on the projects made it impractical for some of the contractors,” Blackford explained. And builders, like nearly every sector, were affected by Covid-related worker shortages.
But each member of the coalition used their unique powers to move legislators. Labor organizers leaned in heavily on Senate leadership. And once the green builders got into the mix and said they would take on the projects with higher labor and efficiency standards, their coalition grew even more powerful. While labor threw down their political power, the green builders made phone calls to their networks, and affordable housing advocates organized lobby days and ran social media campaigns to engage the public.
In the end, they secured $20 million in ARPA funds for affordable housing that were — for the first time ever — qualified with higher energy efficiency and labor standards.
But they made a mistake, Blackford said. Because many Senate leaders were hearing so often from the labor end of the coalition, they knew they had to keep the higher work standards in their legislation. But when leadership moved the proposal from the original legislation into the budget, the energy efficiency standards were inadvertently not included.
“While this was disheartening when it happened, the end result was actually much more powerful,” Blackford said. The coalition continued advocating through the rulemaking process and ultimately passed an amended version of the original bill to maximize the energy efficiency standards for all new affordable housing.
While a huge and necessary investment, the ARP funds were a one-time infusion of cash, so the next step for Maine People’s Alliance is a push for more sustainable money. Namely, moving more of the state budget from general funding into housing to the tune of $20 million a year and paying for housing with funds from the estate tax. They’re also working with groups like the Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition to make it easier for affordable housing projects to get permits and establishing a new state voucher program that is more flexible and can serve folks regardless of their immigration status.
And Blackford sees a definite future for this coalition of labor, environmental, and housing groups in Maine, even if it wasn’t an easy road. “We had to build a lot of trust and work out the details together. Those back-and-forth conversations created a lot of buy-in from everyone in the coalition,” said Blackford.
They now have the frontline formation to take on other issues that are important to all of them, she said, like access to clean water and project labor agreements on renewable energy projects.