It’s good news that the Mills administration is assembling experts to craft an economic development plan for the next decade.

As it starts to take shape, we hope that they don’t forget an essential element of a solid economic future, and that’s housing policy.

That may not seem like a top-of-the-list economic development strategy, but affordable housing in the right places is key to building a workforce to meet the needs of a changing economy. Maine’s economy won’t grow without enough affordable housing and it won’t grow in an environmentally sound way without paying close attention to residential development.

A rural state like Maine, with millions of sparsely developed acres of forest, might not seem like a place with a housing problem, but it is. A shortage of affordable housing not only affects the people who live here now, but also makes it harder for people to move to the state, which puts a lid on our economic development.

Along with the rest of the country, Maine is experiencing near-historic low unemployment, with good jobs going unfilled.

But tight rental housing markets in areas where those jobs are available makes it difficult for people to move where the work is. Maine has a negative natural growth rate – more deaths each year than births – and has only managed to grow slightly thanks to in-migration. But that won’t happen if potential workers can’t find a place to live that would be affordable with a typical Maine income.

About half of renters in the Portland area pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Some find lower rents by extending their commute, spending money on gas and vehicle wear and tear along with hours behind the wheel. The region was ranked as the ninth least affordable market in the nation in a national study last year, making it unlikely to attract people to fill the open jobs in Maine.

There has been housing development in southern Maine, but it has been almost exclusively high-end condominiums. The increasing cost of construction materials and a regional shortage of construction workers has set the market for these units beyond the reach of most working people.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the housing market, there are just not enough apartments for extremely low-income Mainers, or an income of less than $24,600 a year for a family of four. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Maine has a shortage of more than 20,000 units for people in that income group.

So, while public role in economic development is typically focused on infrastructure investment, or incentives designed to encourage businesses to move here or expand, we hope this economic development plan will look at the relationship between housing and sustainable growth.

A state that makes it its business to make sure that there is adequate, affordable housing in the places where the jobs are will be well positioned to compete for the workers who employers say they need. Along with public education and access to health care, public investment in housing is an economic development strategy.

 


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