There is not a single county in Maine in which a full-time, minimum-wage earner can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

This is clearly a statewide problem, but most housing policy decisions are made on the local level. When it comes to deciding what gets built and where it can go, local officials and local zoning ordinances rule.

Understanding the role local governments play in the housing shortage is what’s behind a new commission created by a bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau. The 15 members of the body, including legislators, municipal officials and planning professionals, will help us see this problem outside the hyperlocal context we are used to.

Housing advocates estimate that Maine has a shortfall of 20,000 affordable rental units. Over the last seven years, the state has produced an average of only 230 new units a year, barely putting a dent in a problem that affects people in every part of the state and every stage of life.

But now Maine is in position to do something about it. An eight-year, $80 million tax credit program created in 2020 is already helping start developments that will add 300 new apartments in Skowhegan, Portland and Bath.

Gov. Mills and the Legislature approved another $50 million in federal funds from the American Recovery Plan to build affordable housing in the state. More money may be headed to Maine to pay for housing and transit if Congress passes the infrastructure and jobs packages that are now pending.

None of that will matter, though, if local planning boards and town and city councils don’t decide to play ball. In the face of a regional problem, local control is not the answer.

It’s easy to see why. In most cities and towns, a lack of affordable housing is a problem for people who live someplace else and have no voice in local decision making.

Meanwhile, the concerns of current residents – whether they are real or imagined – about parking, traffic or neighborhood character end up carrying more weight than the needs of a family struggling to keep a roof over its head.

An illustration of how this works is now playing out in Cape Elizabeth, where a proposed 49-unit project in the town center is running into opposition, despite the town’s longstanding  commitment to affordable housing in its comprehensive plan.

Eighty percent of the apartments in the proposed Dunham Court project would be affordable to people who earn $42,000 for a single person or $59,940 for a family of three. They would have few other options in a town where the median home price is $625,000.

The developer says he would need a zoning change and a property tax discount to build the proposed four-story project, and that’s not going to be easy.

Current residents have been lining up at meetings to let the Town Council know that they like Cape Elizabeth just the way it is. Some have threatened a referendum campaign if the council approves the project.

This is not a dynamic unique to Cape Elizabeth. A study of land-use policies conducted for the Greater Portland Council of Government found that only 5 percent of the land in the region is zoned for multifamily construction, making affordable housing projects nearly impossible to site.

If you multiply this conflict by all of Maine’s cities and towns, you can see how what sound like rational choices on a local level turn into a much bigger problem.

To meet our workforce and climate goals, Maine not only needs more affordable housing, we need it in the right places – near jobs and public transit. The sooner we treat this statewide problem for what it is, the sooner it can be solved.


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