Statehouse Report: Housing affordability gets Maine Legislature’s attention

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The Legislature returned to Augusta this week for the first time since July, but with pandemic conditions persisting.

Aside from “live” sessions scheduled for Jan. 5 and Jan. 26, lawmakers will meet virtually in committee hearings throughout the month. If conditions warrant, more in-person meetings could resume as soon as February, although there are no guarantees.

Lawmakers will have plenty on their plates, having accepted more than 150 new bills, along with close to 200 carried over from the 2021 session, including major initiatives to revamp tribal-state relations, study the return of parole, and reform the child welfare system.

A new bill attracting widespread attention would implement recommendations of the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities, a 15-member panel seeking to stem what supporters say is an alarming shortage of affordable housing.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who co-chaired the commission, describes this as “the most urgent problem facing Maine,” and the bipartisan group’s members largely agree.

Several of its nine recommendations directly confront the “local control” ethos prominent in state-municipal discussions in recent decades.

One would eliminate municipal growth caps; another would require “accessory dwelling units” or “in-law apartments” to be allowed in all zones that permit single-family homes.

Yet for the most part, the commission came together on easing local restrictions that, intentionally or not, make housing more expensive or less available at a time the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the enormous difficulties of finding adequate housing.

“This is an issue not only for people who already live in Maine,” Fecteau said in an interview, “but for those who like to come here.”

Ryan Fecteau
Maine Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, says a shortage of affordable housing is “the most urgent problem facing Maine.”

The Census Bureau estimates Maine’s population increased by 10,000 since 2020, due entirely to in-migration, but Fecteau noted such positive demographic trends won’t continue if jobs aren’t matched by housing.

In Cape Elizabeth, the withdrawal of plans for a 47-unit affordable housing complex in the town center has focused unwelcome attention on resistance in one of Maine’s wealthiest communities.

While the Town Council was largely supportive, certification of an opposition referendum prompted the Szanton Co. to pull out, with the developer saying, “Staying in this would require sponsoring a political campaign, which is not what we do.”

At the Town Council’s Dec. 13 meeting, it scheduled the pending referendum for November, rather than the March date one councilor had proposed. That councilor criticized local press coverage and claimed Cape Elizabeth “is the town we love to hate.”

The state commission’s recommendations would address approval of affordable housing projects by adding a state appeals board to review denials.

That provision was one of two, along with abolishing growth caps, that earned a dissent from the Maine Municipal Association, represented on the commission by Kate Dufour, its legislative director.

“Each of us is committed to the goal (of closing the housing gap),” Dufour said. “We all came to this commission with our passions, but municipalities are not solely to blame. A lot of this has been created by state and federal policies.”

She cited the “incredibly discriminatory provisions” originally attached to federal housing programs, which effectively “red-lined” minority homeowners.

MMA believes municipalities can be effective partners with the state, she said, emphasizing the need for technical assistance and incentives – especially for small communities that make up the vast majority of municipalities.

Jeff Levine, who was Portland’s planning director from 2012-2019 and now teaches in the MIT Urban Studies graduate program in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said that while most land-use decisions are made at the municipal level, there are important exceptions.

The Shoreland Zoning Act, enacted in the 1970s, limits development around Maine’s lakes, ponds, and rivers, and requires local zoning review boards even in municipalities that have no other land-use controls.

“That was an important statewide priority back then,” Levine said, suggesting that providing adequate housing might be a similar issue for the 2020s.

Among the commission’s consensus recommendations are provisions for creating priority development areas, financial bonuses for municipalities willing to revise ordinances, and restoring some of the functions once performed by the State Planning Office, abolished at the behest of former Gov. Paul LePage.

Levine said there was considerable discussion of how to coordinate housing programs, but such recommendations were beyond the commission’s scope. Reviving the State Planning Office might not be necessary, he added, but state assistance must be provided either through existing agencies or new state or regional efforts.

Fecteau said legislation likely to be co-sponsored with Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, should be ready for a committee hearing in late January or early February.

He emphasized that “no one community can solve this,” but that by providing housing opportunities regionally, the gap between affordable units – now being built at the rate of 250 annually, against a need of 1,000 – can be bridged.

“And that’s just for those who live here now,” Fecteau said. “If we’re going to grow, we need to do more.”

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, commentator, and reporter since 1984, is the author of three books. His first, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now in paperback. He welcomes comments at [email protected].