AUGUSTA — Opportunity awaits developers or others with money to invest in building or renovating housing in Augusta, to both get a solid return on their investment and help address growing demand for housing.

That was the message officials and experts sought to instill in a housing forum attended by about 50 people, at least 20 of whom said they were developers, house-flippers, landlords or others looking to invest in housing.

Potential developers, meanwhile, said efforts to develop housing in the city can be stymied by zoning restrictions and relatively high taxes.

The forum, according to organizer Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, was meant to discuss housing trends, show there is a housing shortage crisis in Augusta, and show people who might have money to invest that there are opportunities in Augusta to invest in housing and help is available to help them do so.

Quoting a speech by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, Bartlett said if you are offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat; you just get on.

“I feel like Augusta, Maine, is that rocket ship and we’re on the launch pad,” she said. “We’re ready to do this. Get on.”

Local consultant Frank O’Hara pointed to data that he said indicates the demand for housing in Augusta is on the rise and should continue to increase, making the area ripe for development at a time when housing is in short supply.

He said the volume of housing sales in the last four years increased from about 800 to 1,300, vacancy rates have dropped from 8 percent to 6 percent and, over the last 10 years, 800 housing units were lost and are no longer part of the housing stock. Also, he said, there are more than 10,000 workers in Kennebec County between 55 and 64 years old, nearing retirement age.

He said when someone retires it means two things for the local housing market: The retiring person looks for a smaller, more accessible place to live; and a younger person moves into the area, likely into their first apartment or home, to take the job of the new retiree.

“There was a lot of old housing, housing that was not very desirable and not very affordable to fix,” O’Hara said of Augusta. “A lot of that is gone now. The market looking for housing is going up. These are signs of demand coming in the next five to six years. Augusta is well positioned to take advantage of that demand.”

Mike Myatt, of the Bangor Housing Authority, said that city has helped address a shortage of housing there in several ways, including by taking homes seized for nonpayment of taxes and seeking, quickly, bidders to buy and redevelop them to return them to tax-generating status.

Augusta Mayor David Rollins said Augusta works hard to do that too.

Myatt said one of the biggest populations in need of housing is the middle class, made up of people who don’t qualify for government assistance but who still need a place to live.

“There is a huge need, for a private developer, to find a really good deal on a home, make some investments, give it some curb appeal and nice new amenities people are looking for,” Myatt said. “Interest rates aren’t doing anything. You can make a lot more money if you invest in some real estate. Your rents will always outweigh your expenses. That return can be eight, 10, or 12 percent, way more than you’ll get at the bank.”

Developers said obstacles they’ve found to creating housing in Augusta include zoning, which requires a certain number of parking spaces for multi-unit buildings; and property taxes, which are higher than those of some surrounding communities.

Robert Philbrick, a housing developer who said he builds duplexes, said Augusta is a great place for a business, but the city is losing homeowners to Sidney and other area towns because the taxes are cheaper. He suggested coming up with an incentive program to give builders of housing a break on their taxes.

Developer Kevin Bunker said quality of life, such as amenities that can be offered in a city, can make a place so attractive to live in that if its taxes are somewhat higher, it won’t matter.

Bartlett said increasing the availability of affordable and moderately priced housing in the city could help draw recent college graduates and young families to Augusta, thus helping stimulate economic growth.

She said the recent creation of new apartments in multiple downtown buildings helps but falls well short of addressing the housing shortage in Augusta. She said conversion of the former Cony flatiron building into senior housing and the housing authority’s own under-construction project converting the former Hodgkins Middle School building into senior housing have helped and will help deal with the housing situation, but more needs to be done.

Bartlett said a follow-up session planned for the fall, as sort of a “small developer boot camp,” will provide technical assistance on putting a development deal together. She said funding assistance is out there.

Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said 14 rental units are being built downtown in the former Stacy’s building, and 12 rental units in the old Farrell’s building. He said the association is working on a program that could provide grants to help building owners develop apartments on the upper floors.

“That’s one thing we’d like to tackle, figure out a way to get those upper stories filled with residents,” Hall said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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