In an endless stream of bad news about the lack of affordable housing in our state, I’ll offer words of hope and perspective from one of Maine’s larger cities.

Workers work on the roof at the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford last September. The clock tower of Biddeford City Hall is to the right. When completed, The Lincoln will be a mixed-use hotel and residential property in the Lincoln Mill Building. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The pandemic altered the landscape. Our desirability as a place to live has fueled intense pressure on our housing stock, as more and more people discovered not only the joys of working at home, but also the joys of doing so while living in Maine.

Biddeford is not immune. In the last decade, entrepreneurs and courageous urban planning helped the city transform itself from an exhausted mill town to a city with award-winning restaurants, beautiful beaches, a thriving university and ample trails and parks. New residents have arrived from all areas of the country, along with immigrants from around the world. We’re now the youngest city in Maine.

Unfortunately, consequences of this economic resurgence have emerged. Intending to recoup their significant investments, new owners sprucing up tenements and repurposing former mill spaces have raised rents. That’s expected and reasonable, but it puts extreme pressure on families who now struggle to find housing that they can afford. Homelessness has increased in Biddeford and other cities all over Maine. Normally associated with mental illness or substance abuse, the problem now also includes people who work hard, but whose wages have not kept up with rising costs. Waiting lists for subsidized housing run years into the future, and rules and programs that might have worked in the past clearly need adjustment.

Like every community in Maine, Biddeford now has skyrocketing demand for housing that working people can afford.

As mayor, I’ve been working with our City Council to stimulate more affordable-housing initiatives. We continue to examine zoning and density ideas. Additionally, actions we take regarding potential new housing always push developers to include affordable units in any market-rate project they build. That’s a top priority for us.

Led by Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, Biddeford’s state senator, Susan Deschambault, and the rest of our legislative delegation, the Legislature has passed a new law that now defines affordable housing as an acceptable use under Maine’s tax-increment financing regulations. City staff smartly identified this possible change in law and worked with our local delegation to help pass it. An immediate benefit of this change will be the construction of 36 units of affordable housing under the supervision of the Biddeford Housing Authority.

Municipal leaders can independently forge solutions, too. A few months ago, I had a conversation with a local developer, which then led to some remarkably innovative thinking by city staff. Ultimately that led to our City Council approving a creative package that includes 250 market-rate apartments built by one developer, designed specifically to fit the needs of health care workers in the nearby hospital and medical offices. Rents will be market rate, but lower than new apartments in other parts of the city. The creativity appears in what I might call Part B. It’s a linked deal with a second developer, which secures Biddeford a seat at the table during master planning for an adjacent 70 acres of land. The general concept is a mixture of affordable and market-rate housing, family homes, natural environmental protections and a trail system that would connect the area to city parks, schools, the Eastern Trail and the Riverwalk.

In July, the Press Herald Editorial Board wrote that “many communities will have to build more housing … near jobs, amenities and services and along busy travel corridors, coordinated with public transit.”

That’s exactly what our City Council just made possible. I was inspired by how nimble and flexible all parties were – city staff, the two developers and the council – as this uniquely crafted solution came together.

Maine’s affordable-housing crisis is a figment of nobody’s imagination. It’s real, it hurts working people and it’s indeed a crisis. But I’m happy to report that Maine’s people, elected officials, municipal employees and business professionals are entirely capable of working together collaboratively. That’s how Maine will originate great ideas that make serious headway toward easing this historic housing crunch.

It just happened in Biddeford, so I know it can happen in your town or city, too.

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