Amanda Olson, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority, is shown this summer at the Hodgkins School Apartments in Augusta. The apartments opened in 2016 after the authority converted the vacant school into 47 units of affordable housing for people 55 and older. Despite the opening of the building, and several other housing projects that are underway, Augusta is still in need of nearly 900 affordable housing units to meet demand. Waterville is in need of nearly 1,000 such units. Photo courtesy of Tim Greenway

Rebecca Green’s job as a grant writer for the Knox County Homeless Coalition based in Rockland got her thinking in 2019 about the shortage of housing, and homelessness, in Waterville, where she lives.

“I started learning about the issue and I said, ‘Wait a minute, we have similar problems right here,'” she recalled. “That was a big incentive for me to run for council.”

Green was elected in 2020 to the Waterville City Council. She suggested the city form a housing committee, a request the council approved in 2021. In January this year, she was elected council chair.

The Waterville Housing Committee, which she leads, looked at housing statistics, scrutinized the city’s comprehensive plan which dates back to 2014, reviewed a housing study done in 2002 and discovered that problems identified in that study persist today.

“We still have abandoned buildings, and blight, a lack of senior housing, and low home ownership,” Green said. “Waterville has an extremely high ratio of renter- to owner-occupied housing. It’s much higher than in other communities. You read the housing study and you think, ‘Wow. Deja vu.’ ”

As the problems persist from one year to the next, the central Maine region isn’t keeping up with the demand for affordable places to live, particularly as home sales in Maine have skyrocketed over the last few years and inflationary pressures have led landlords to raise rents. The Maine State Housing Authority keeps records on the number of households that qualify to live in affordable housing and the agency has determined that Waterville and Augusta alone need about 1,830 units.


In Waterville, 962 housing units are needed, including 497 family units and 465 units for older adults; in Augusta, 870 units are needed, including 568 family dwellings and 302 units for older adults. And the demand also persists for several other communities in the region. Gardiner, for instance, needs 206 units, including 109 for families and 97 for older people. While several projects are underway to address the problem, the high cost of construction materials is hampering some efforts.

“Of course, right now with the exploding costs, many moderate income individuals and families are also struggling to find housing that they can afford,” said Michele Prince, chief operating officer for the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, which works on housing issues.

Garvan Donegan, director of planning, innovation and economic development for the Central Maine Growth Council, said his office is tracking nine housing projects in the works in Waterville, totaling 305 potential new units. The projects are in varying stages of development and represent a mix of housing types but most are affordable or workforce housing tied to local average median income, Donegan said in an email.

The Growth Council sees housing as economic development and communities that don’t have plans to create or support new and adequate housing will not be able to grow and thrive, he said. His office helps developers and communities by pitching developable site options to them, creating budgets and funding opportunities for infrastructure such as public water extensions to support housing. It also advises them on land use and control issues, helps them develop business plans, counsels them on planning and permitting processes, and identifies funding sources.

A ‘grave’ housing situation

Augusta also has taken a number of steps to address its lack of affordable places to live.

Amanda Olson, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority who also serves on the board of directors for the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said there has long been a shortage of housing in the Augusta area. That need rose to dire levels during the pandemic for several reasons, including inflation and the fact that many people were moving to Maine to escape more populated areas, she said. Olson noted that in-migration is a “great thing” and something the area has for years been promoting as a way to grow the work force in a rapidly aging state.


“To provide some perspective on how grave the housing situation has become, over the course of the past year Augusta Housing has drawn close to 700 applicants from our Section 8 voucher waiting list and only 39 being able to find places to rent across 19 towns we serve,” she said. “We have seen rents soar from around $850 to $900 for a two-bedroom rental pre-pandemic to now where we often see two bedrooms renting in the $1,400 to $2,200 range.”

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is working to convert this abandoned building at 8 Highwood St. in Waterville into apartments for seniors and disabled adults with families, with some emergency units for the homeless. It’s one of several projects in Waterville trying to address the lack of affordable housing in the region. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

The increases have pushed some residents out of stable housing and, for the first time this winter, there was visible homelessness in the city, with some sleeping outside in tents during the harshest months, according to Olson. She said she has heard about displaced, working families staying in cars, with rental assistance in hand, but no place to go.

“It’s an unprecedented time but the good news is that the crisis is being met with equally unprecedented levels of political and financial support from the government at every level,” Olson said. “At Augusta Housing, we currently have more than 100 units of affordable housing in some phase of pre-development. This includes a proposed 32-unit workforce housing community on Park Street in Augusta and a 340-unit development for older adults on Malta Street.”

The Augusta Planning Board in recent days gave its approval to the Park Street project. The City Council, meanwhile, granted some modifications to a plan for a 38-unit apartment building on Western Avenue that allows that project to move forward for consideration by the Planning Board.

Also in Augusta, a 260-unit apartment complex is being proposed on undeveloped land off Eight Rod Road, within walking distance of the Marketplace at Augusta, a sprawling mall that draws thousands of shoppers to central Maine. The one- and two-bedroom apartments would be all market-rate units. The Planning Board earlier voted to table the proposal to give the Massachusetts-based developer more time to work on the plan, acquire necessary permits and address traffic issues in and out of the site.

Seeking solutions, big and small

Green, the Waterville City Council chairwoman, said housing is considered affordable if a person pays up to 30% of their income for it, and if they are paying more than that then they’re considered “cost burdened.” Fifty-eight percent of people in Maine with low incomes pay more than 50% of their income on rent, she said.


“The lower you go on the income strata, the harder it is to find housing,” she said. “This is a big issue.”

Several housing projects are in the works in Waterville, at various levels of development. The City Council and city officials, advocating for North River Co., the owners of the Lockwood Mill building on Water Street, asked Kennebec County to support its plan with federal funding to develop the northernmost building into apartments and some retail space. The county recently dedicated $1 million to help the project launch. Some people will get subsidized assistance to live there, Green said.

State Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, saw the Lockwood project as a priority and with state Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, and Republican state Sen. Scott Cyrway, whose district includes Waterville, wrote a letter asking for the county’s support.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of projects that had been in the works are delayed by high construction costs,” Madigan said. “That (Lockwood project) would be really helpful for the families that are struggling right now. It could make a big difference in Waterville.”

Another housing project delayed by construction costs is a plan to turn the former Seton Hospital on Chase Avenue in Waterville into apartments.

Madigan said the state Legislature’s adoption of a bill allowing so-called “in-law apartments” to be built onto homes, on what were considered single-family lots, is helping to alleviate the housing crisis. She says a lot of older people have lived in Waterville their whole lives and raised their families there, and now find it difficult to keep up with living and maintenance costs. She also noted that the majority of people experiencing homelessness have jobs but they don’t earn enough to pay rental costs.


Olson, of the Augusta Housing Authority, said in light of the bill’s passage she is hopeful that there will be a renewed interest for private property owners and homeowners to consider small-scale development of two- to four-unit buildings on land they own.

“We have learned that our state cannot rely on large-scale housing alone to meet the growing demand and it is critically important that there is a constant pipeline of smaller projects happening as well,” she said. “It’s something that is really attainable for many property owners in the Augusta area, and smaller projects take less time to bring to fruition when compared with the large developments, which can take two to three-plus years to complete.”

A ‘benefits chasm’

The Maine State Housing Authority gets funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to issue vouchers to people with certain incomes seeking housing, but there is only a 4% success rate in that regard, and a waiting list, according to Green. A voucher will pay $888 for a two-bedroom unit in Waterville.

“But go online and the two-bedroom apartments are $1,000 and $1,500 in Waterville,” she said. “Some apartments have gone up 9% in the last year. So the rents are going up and the income guidelines aren’t keeping pace with inflation.”

People who start to earn more money can lose their eligibility for housing vouchers, according to Green, who said more and more people are getting evicted from their apartments.

“They’re getting caught in this benefits chasm,” she said.


Her housing committee determined collaboration was necessary between different agencies working on housing issues, including the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville, Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, Waterville Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity and others.

One result of that collaboration is that the Waterville City Council created a Commercial C-1 Zone that allows residential and commercial entities in the same zone. The area of College Avenue was targeted for that zone.

Arthur Turmelle and his family, longtime landlords in the city’s North End who own Arcon Realty, launched a plan to build new apartment buildings on the site of the former restaurant The Manor, on College Avenue. The old building was recently demolished and work continues on plans for that development. It will include 36 townhouse-style apartments, including affordable housing.

And the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter plans to redevelop a former nuns’ dormitory at 8 Highwood St., off College Avenue, into about 20 apartments, mostly for seniors and adults with disabilities and their families, as well as some emergency housing for homeless people. The project will be developed with some federal funding and tenants will be supported through case management and other services.

Nancy Williams, who founded the Waterville Community Land Trust and is a member of the Waterville Housing Committee, is working with others on a “housing consortium” program allowing cities and towns to band together to tap into federal money. The municipalities would need to raise at least $500,000 and must be adjacent to one another. Earlier this year, Williams, a consortium administrator, and representatives from 15 other communities met to discuss forming a consortium that would reach from Augusta to Bangor.

There are about 80 vacant buildings in Waterville and not all of them are residential. Green said it is possible some of those buildings could be used for housing. Federal American Rescue Plan Act money is a possible funding source for housing, she said. The city received a total of $1.7 million and designated $650,000 of that for various uses including $400,000 for the homeless shelter.

The Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter is working on developing a “master leasing” program which would help people needing a place to live find one and ensure they are not evicted if they run into a problem such as job loss or a car breaking down — issues which could threaten their ability to meet rent payments. The homeless shelter would take on the lease with the landlord and ensure the funds are paid in such emergencies, thereby removing the risk of eviction.

“The idea is, we can really support people moving right away into housing that they might not otherwise qualify for,” Green said. “Through this support with the homeless shelter, a tenant and landlord develop a rapport and the tenant would take over the lease.”

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