It seems every time the Bangor housing crisis is brought up, it’s paired with the ominous Game of Thrones threat, “winter is coming.” Yes, yes, it is. No people are more aware of that than those who are struggling to find housing in Maine. When those living in tents say it, it is a plea for help. When those who are in a position of authority say it, it should feel like a battle cry that rallies us around their plan of action. Instead, it feels like empty lip service that says “I get that the Bangor housing crisis is bad, I’m concerned about it, and rest assured, I’ll keep reminding you that I’m concerned.”
Concern is not enough
Being concerned is not enough to solve the problem. I’m not preaching anything new here, we all know this. Concern is supposed to spark action. If you are concerned that people are falling into the Grand Canyon when they try to get a closer look, you put up a rail. You post signs. You hire more park rangers to help discourage people from standing too close to the edge. Imagine saying “tourist season is coming” and then doing nothing. It makes no sense. Yet, here in Bangor, all we have to go on is “winter is coming.”
Swatting down ideas and a nothing burger: A Tale of the Bangor City Council and the Housing Crisis
So far this year they’ve voted down an ordinance that would have allowed more shared housing. They’re also greenlighting a developer to build tiny houses and rent them for $1,500 a month. Now they’re considering requiring that landlords give a 60-day notice on rent increases (but no cap on the amount of the increase) and capping application fees at $50. Without a rent increase cap, this ordinance will have zero effect for those who lack housing or are under threat of losing housing. Each of the councilors have to be aware of the current state of the rental market in Bangor. They also have to know the current state of employee compensation in our economy. What did they realistically think a 60-day notice would accomplish?
Landlord: “Per Bangor City Ordinance signed into law under the “Hey at least we did something I guess” Act, I have to notify you that your rent will be increasing from $1100 to $1760 a month in two months.”
Renter: Cool. Thanks for the heads up. It should be super easy to come up with additional income on a regular basis to cover a 60% increase in rent within 60 days.
Landlord: “Well if you end up not affording it, I understand. I have 20 other renters on a wait list that all paid me $50 a pop to apply for your place. Besides, I heard you can get a tiny home for $1,500 a month now. How cool is that?”
Another week, no action in the general City Council meeting
The agenda for this week’s city council meeting boasted over 200 pages of material. None of it was dedicated to the Bangor housing crisis. The closest it came was the paperwork authorizing the city to accept funds from the CDC to combat drug abuse and overdoses. The housing crisis is a human catastrophe that is only getting worse by the day. The city council only holds two meetings a month where action can be voted on and take flight. With only 4 meetings left until winter it feels like the city council has left the unhoused at the mercy of churches and non-profits without offering any support to those organizations either.
Bangor’s Top 3 Concerns: All Housing
The City of Bangor is in the process of putting together its comprehensive plan for the next few years. They asked the public to comment on what it thought were the greatest challenges and needs for the city of Bangor and here are the top 3 responses:
• Addressing housing availability and affordability
• Increasing the diversity of housing options
• Addressing homelessness
The people of Bangor get it. If we don’t solve this problem now it’s going to spiral out of control. I would argue that with having nearly 200 people sleeping outside on any given night in Bangor it already has. The marching orders have been given to the city, but I don’t think the city is hearing the drum. Oh sure, “winter is coming”, they say. But where is the urgency? This crisis demands urgency.
Would having a mayor solve City Council dysfunction?
When Joe Leonard ran in the special election for city council, one of his positions was that Bangor should have a mayor. In light of the inaction on the Bangor housing crisis, it turns out he may have been on to something. What if Bangor had a true executive with some authority to address this issue? Let’s run the cards. I just appointed myself Mayor Mike for this exercise.
First things first: What do we have?
My first act is to direct city employees to compile a report of every penny and resource available to us. What are we working with here? Currently the City of Bangor has a vague website where they talked to different organizations about what they could offer, but they include the very odd disclaimer: “This information is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to be a resource for those experiencing homelessness.” What’s the point of having a URL that ends in /homelessness but doesn’t actually serve to help the homeless? Time to compile that resource and make it useable.
Next: What do our neighbors need?
Next, it’s time to reach out to those in our community and find out what are all of their needs. Let’s put together a team of caring and compassionate people who will be able to make safe contact with our unhoused neighbors, and in a way that treats them with the dignity and respect a person deserves.
Let’s find out: What are their realistic goals? Do they just want a place to live in Bangor? Do they need employment and if so, what kind of work? What are all the barriers preventing them from achieving their goals? Identify what are we up against on a person-by-person, family-by-family basis. Let’s find these things out face it together as a community!
Take action with what we have, identify what we still need
I need two Bangor housing crisis advocacy panels. One focused on taking everything we’ve learned about our resources and everything we’ve learned about our neighbors who are struggling and go into triage mode. Look at every case. What can we pair up with our resources and solve today? Right now. This is beyond traditional case management. And if a family or individual already has a case manager let’s make them part of the conversation. Our goal here is to discover who can we fully serve and put back on their feet with what we have?
The next panel is charged with fully identifying the missing pieces. It’ll be clear we don’t have enough. We can see that today. Not enough housing and not enough services for mental health and substance abuse to name two. But now it’s time to put a list together and get a price tag. We need a jumping off point. Don’t worry about budget constraints. Not yet. Look at all the cases that the first panel couldn’t solve and tell me what we’re missing to meet all the needs. I want a full list and how much is it going to cost.
Finding the money
It’s going to be apparent that the City of Bangor does not have the revenue to meet all of this demand. Raising taxes on businesses still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic is not the answer. A fair chunk of it could come from the $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that Bangor received from the federal government. But not all of it. Especially since we have many non-profit organizations in this community that can help bridge the divide.
Bringing non-profits into the fold
The greater Bangor area has many organizations with missions to help those in need of housing in one capacity or another. They’ve all shown a willingness to sit down and talk with City officials in the past to share how they can help. It’s time to give them the chance. We’ve learned what they can do. We’ve learned what our neighbors need. Assign the pieces. That opens up the next challenge we face.
More than just fundraising: Bangor Together
These organizations have the ability and the planning to do the good work, but they lack the funding to completely solve the problem. Grants only go so far. Fundraising has been difficult, especially when all of the asks to this point has been connect to general missions of these organizations. That doesn’t always inspire us to open our wallets and give. We need a connection to our sense of community.
And now the City has assigned responsibilities and non-profits have agreed to take them. There is a plan. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and no, it’s not an oncoming train. We have a price tag. The big price tag is easier to chew when it’s broken down into smaller parts and the responsibility is spread out to raise it. Now we take it to the people and celebrate our sense of community in raising these funds and solving this issue that the majority of us agree is our top priority.
This won’t be a generic “our fundraising goal is $100,000 because that seemed like a good number” typical fundraising effort like we see so often these days. We have a case to make to the people of Bangor. This is a “we were assigned a specific family of 4 and it will cost $147,228 to get them back on their feet, so let’s help our neighbors” fundraising effort. No, I’m not calling for specific names and faces to be used in fundraising. Privacy and dignity are too important. But the people of Bangor will know that behind every fundraising dollar given that there is a specific need already carved out for individuals and each donation is putting a life back together today. Right now.
We can do it because “We Are Bangor”
Every shop window. Banners in downtown. We Are Bangor. Proud members of the Bangor community both living here today, and those who found their way around the world, sending in donations to get this done. Every city official promoting this everywhere. Bleeding that Bangor Pride as we work to get the funding. We will see this through. Good leadership inspires us. Clear planning and vision inspires us. Elected officials simply pointing out “winter is coming” does not. We succeed because someone took action and called the shots.
Does it seriously have to be a mayor?
The crisis is terrible and getting worse. Decisive action needs to be taken. Joe Leonard’s mayor idea is gaining traction because of just how ineffective City Council has been in addressing this crisis. Does it absolutely have to be a mayor to get this done? No. City Council certainly could wake up and decide to take all of the same actions I’ve presented here so long as they can keep following through in a coordinated effort every step of the way.
Can the Bangor City Council be what this moment demands of them?
As of this moment we’re seeing that the Council is not getting the job done. The fact is the amount of cooperation and coordination required by individuals all elected with clashing political ideologies is proving to be too much to overcome. Even when some semblance of a plan was published in 2019 the Council has yet to implement meaningful change from it, as evidenced by the worsening of the Bangor housing crisis.
If they’re not going to visit the idea of a city executive with enough authority to get ahead of these issues, the City Council needs to appoint someone to effectively drive them with a plan to use their authority effectively to fix this problem. Because wringing their hands about how complex this crisis is while reminding us all “winter is coming” isn’t getting it done.
In 2022 it’s a sad state of affairs that the largest obstacle to solving the housing crisis is the lack of any coherent plan. This should be all City Council is talking about and thinking about until there is a plan. Now more than ever.
I hear winter is coming.