Gov. Janet Mills has named a longtime housing advocate to advise her administration on housing policy as it ramps up efforts to address a growing critical need for affordable housing in Maine.

Greg Payne, who has been development officer at Avesta Housing in Portland and director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition for nearly 15 years, will become Mills’ senior adviser on housing policy on Sept. 7.

The position was created to help the Mills administration meet demand for about 20,000 affordable, safe and accessible housing units across the state, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. To make a serious dent in that need – which has grown more acute in the last year during a pandemic-driven real estate boom – housing advocates say the state should promote policies and provide funding to help developers build at least 1,000 housing units per year.

Moving in that direction, Mills has targeted $50 million to build affordable housing as part of her Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan, which is funded by $1.13 billion that Maine received through the American Recovery Plan Act. Additional federal money for housing could soon follow if Congress approves a $213 billion Biden proposal to build or preserve more than 2 million affordable housing units.

In his new role, Payne will lead collaboration on policy initiatives across state agencies, with the Maine Legislature, and with industry leaders and other stakeholders to develop innovative housing solutions, said Hannah Pingree, director of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future.

“Affordable housing is a critical issue for Maine’s economic growth and recovery – supporting Maine workers and their families, investing in our communities, and addressing climate change,” Pingree said. “We are pleased to have Greg’s considerable experience and expertise serving the people of Maine.”

Payne said Maine’s housing challenges have never been greater, especially as residential real estate prices skyrocket and rental costs move farther out of reach for many low- and moderate-income Mainers.

“But the opportunities ahead to address those challenges are unprecedented as well,” Payne said. “I am thrilled to work with Gov. Mills and her team in making the most of those opportunities on behalf of the people of Maine.”

The coalition hasn’t always found support in the Blaine House. Gov. Paul LePage stymied housing advocates repeatedly while in office from 2011 to 2018.

During his first few years as governor, LePage blocked MaineHousing from issuing federally subsidized tax-exempt bonds that would have supported construction of hundreds of affordable units each year. He finally lifted the ban in September 2013.

LePage also blocked a $14.5 million senior housing bond issue that was approved by nearly 70 percent of Maine voters in 2015. Mills released the funds soon after she took office in 2019 and MaineHousing awarded the money to seven projects across the state that added 212 affordable units for people 55 and older.

Lacking more significant investment, Maine has produced an average of 230 new subsidized affordable housing units per year from 2014 to 2020, according to MaineHousing. It may surpass that average in 2021, having already completed 231 new units so far this year.

But Payne and other housing advocates point to out-of-reach rental costs as proof that Maine must produce a lot more affordable housing.

Fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine is $1,112 per month, according to federal housing data. To afford that level of rent and utilities – without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing – a household must earn $21.39 per hour in a 40-hour week, which is $3,707 per month or $44,488 annually, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

However, the average renter in Maine earns $12.90 per hour – just above minimum wage. Moreover, many two-bedroom apartments in Greater Portland now rent for more than $2,000 per month.

Payne, 52, has nearly two decades of experience in issues related to housing and homelessness, including work at the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. He’s also former chairman of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Payne has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a law degree from the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. Following his graduation from law school, he worked in Boston for five years as a real estate attorney specializing in affordable housing.

Payne joined Avesta Housing in 2007 as development officer, managing all aspects of multifamily rental projects from concept to completion. Avesta has developed and operates 109 subsidized apartment buildings and complexes in Maine and New Hampshire that house over 4,600 residents.

As director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, Payne has represented a diverse association of 135 private- and public-sector individuals and organizations – including housing authorities, property owners and contractors – that are committed to ensuring all Mainers have adequate and affordable housing.

“That work will continue going forward, of course, as we appear poised to enter a period of unprecedented opportunity for forward progress on these issues,” Payne said in an email to coalition members. “It will be critical for us to meet the moment and make the most of those opportunities.”

Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta Housing, said he’ll miss working with Payne day to day, but he’s glad the governor tapped Payne to join her team.

“It’s good for affordable housing and it’s good for Maine,” Totman said. “Greg has been able to bring together many diverse organizations and work across party lines, and he’ll be in a good place now to influence housing policy in a more significant way.”

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