Housing expert Jeff Levine was the featured speaker at a housing conference held Tuesday at The Elm in Waterville. He addressed the housing crisis facing Waterville and other areas in Maine and presented some ideas for rectifying the problem. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Having a variety of housing options in any community, including affordable housing, is an asset that also contributes to a healthy economy.

That was one of the messages housing expert Jeff Levine touted Tuesday at a housing conference that focused on developing ideas to address the area’s housing crisis.

About 40 city officials, residents and people working in housing-related fields attended the all-day event at The Elm on College Avenue. Will Harper of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments facilitated the event.

Levine, an urban planner and owner of Levine Planning Strategies of Portland, was the conference’s featured speaker. He is interim director of the Affordable Housing Coalition and serves on a state committee looking at zoning issues as they relate to housing.

Levine discussed challenges and also solutions to the housing crunch, including establishing housing trusts and working on zoning reform.

The benefits of having viable, safe housing contribute to a city’s quality of life and enable it to compete with those in other states, as people applying for jobs must have a place to live, Levine said. If a candidate is considering comparable jobs in both Maine and another state, and the housing elsewhere is better and less costly, the person likely will choose the other state, he said.

Housing trusts, zoning that allows for housing to be developed, land trusts, density bonuses and tax increment financing districts are some ways to promote housing, he said. Maine has an affordable TIF program, he added.

Jeff Levine, featured speaker at a housing conference held Tuesday at The Elm in Waterville, speaks about challenges to establishing affordable housing. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“Obviously, more funding can help make more housing,” he said.

Preserving existing, below-market housing is important, he said. Investing in buildings at risk of falling down before building new should be a priority. Establishing a housing inspection program that looks at basic issues such as the presence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can help to ensure safe housing, he said.

Some cities have homebuyer assistance programs to help people purchase their first homes. Communities can get local banks to work with them on such programs, according to Levine.

“It’s a way to help build more ownership in your community,” he said.

Community land trusts, where a nonprofit organization owns the land on which homes are located, also make homes more affordable.

Jennifer Johnson, a Waterville resident and member of a city committee exploring ways to use federal COVID-19 relief money, attended the conference and said it was informative.

“The lack of housing across all price points is an issue I have heard brought up many times throughout Waterville, from long-term residents and people looking to relocate here,” said Johnson, wife of David Johnson, a member of the city’s Planning Board. “I’m at this conference to learn what can be done to help.”

Peter Phair was the conference chairman, is executive director for the Waterville Area Habitat for Humanity and serves on the Waterville Housing Committee, which sponsored the conference. The committee was established by the City Council and has been meeting since the spring to discuss the housing crisis facing the area, and what can be done to address it. Headed up by City Councilor Rebecca Green, D-Ward 4, the committee focuses on all aspects of housing, including the lack of housing in general, not only for those who are homeless but those who want to live and work in the city.

Members of the housing committee also include City Councilor Flavia DeBrito, D-Ward 2; Mina Amundsen of Colby College; Patric Moore, a representative of the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association; Nancy Williams of the Waterville Community Land Trust; and Paula Raymond, a member of the South End Neighborhood Association.

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