It would be easy to take the opportunity to dunk on Cape Elizabeth now that a few entitled loudmouths have killed the town’s first affordable housing development in a generation.

But we really ought to thank them.

If we’ve ever needed proof that the affordable housing crisis is a statewide problem that won’t be solved on a town-by-town basis, this is it. When the Legislature gets back to work next month, they ought to pay special attention to a report from a commission led by state Sen. Craig Hickman and Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau – one that identifies the way local land-use ordinances have created regional housing shortages and offers ideas about what the state can do about it.

As they tee up that conversation, what just happened in Cape should be Exhibit A.

The project known as Dunham Court would have created 44 apartments. Most would have rented for below market rates, making them affordable to young workers and empty nesters with incomes, depending on family size, between $45,000 and $55,000 a year. Many state senators and representatives come from towns that would have been delighted to get a proposal like that.

But the developers pulled out last week, because after going through an exhausting planning process with the town, in which they revised their proposal to accommodate some of the critics, they faced a citizen-initiated referendum that– even if they won – would cost too much time and money.


You could say that this is just Cape Elizabeth’s loss. Longtime residents who would like their kids to have an opportunity to stay in the community as they start their careers, or those who would like to stay themselves after their children have grown up, will have fewer options.

But it’s not just one town’s problem.

Housing prices are rising all over the state, and that affects everything from child care to nursing homes. Companies can’t hire the people they need and workers are driving long distances because they can’t afford to live near their jobs.

We have some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, and much of it was built when families were bigger, jobs were more secure and big manufacturing plants were running around the clock.

We don’t have enough of the right kind of housing in the right places that is affordable on the kind of incomes people here earn, and a moderate-size project like Dunham Court would have eased the pressure in a region that desperately needs the relief.

The opponents of the project say they are not against affordable housing. They just didn’t like this project. Some say they don’t like the way the deal is structured, requiring a zoning change and a tax break. Others object to the loss of public open space, or the design of the building, or the way it would change the town’s character.


These are the kind of things that you are liable to hear about any development anywhere. The opponents don’t have to agree on why they dislike the project, as long as they all say “no.” And they don’t have to be in the majority as long as they can delay the process long enough to make it unviable. The people who would directly benefit don’t usually get a vote, because they live somewhere else.

Most of the commission’s recommendations wouldn’t have made a difference for a project like Dunham Court, but they do address the affordable housing supply problem in other ways. Towns would still be in charge of drawing their own zoning maps, but the Legislature could put some housing-friendly limits on what they can disallow.

One proposal is to create the right for every homeowner to build an accessory dwelling unit – planner speak for what are commonly called “in-law apartments.” A homeowner could use the apartment to help out a family member or rent the space to help pay their mortgage. An older couple might choose to live in the ADU and rent the house to a family.

Another proposal would be allowing multiunit developments on areas that are zoned for single-family houses. The commission recommends allowing up to four-unit buildings on every lot zoned for single-family homes as long as the building meets local standards for things like lot size, setbacks and sewers.

These are not quick-fix ideas and they won’t solve every facet of the housing problem. But making new units available in places where they are needed would make a difference over time.

We can’t rely on local governments to care much about what happens across the town line. The state needs to step up and recognize that housing affordability is not just a local problem and start dealing with it.

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