Maine’s acute housing crisis, its crippling labor shortage, and the severe pressure so many of its public and private services are now under – these conditions are intertwined.

The most obvious way out is to plan and build appropriate housing without delay. And, as we saw last week, the most obvious way to doom a sensible housing proposal to failure is to let contempt and fear felt by local residents stand in its way.

Last Tuesday, more than two-thirds of voters in the town of Cumberland rejected a plan for the development of three blocks of residential units for households earning less than 60% of the area median income, which is $144,000 (more than double the state median).

This vote was not the product of confusion or insufficient information. A thorough FAQ document put out by the town answered questions, whether asked in good faith or bad, in careful detail and a refreshingly conversational tone. The proposal for the affordable housing development, to be funded mostly with federal tax credits on town-owned land, was simple and clear. A majority of residents was just as clear that they did not want anything to do with it.

The concerns offered by opponents publicly were varied.

Too close to the town forest, as if the site wasn’t already part of a suburban town center, as if the proximity of a single housing development could affect the mood in the woods.


Too many children added to local schools, never mind that the total number of new students was unlikely to be more than 30, nor that the salary range for residents eligible for the proposed units had some hope of aligning with what is paid to the staff and custodians of those schools.

Too much to sacrifice the baseball fields, despite the fact that the local Little League board of directors had confirmed its satisfaction (nay, its enthusiasm) with a switch to new grounds nearby.

Too much new taxation, an argument delivered over the town manager’s efforts to impress upon residents that the likely change to property tax bills would have been an extra $1.50, annually, per $100,000 in home valuation.

Too much risk of endangerment of a small local turtle population, the mere mention of wh–

We’ll stop there.

We’ve seen this type of straw-man resistance by neighborhoods time and again; in many ways, this was not a surprising outcome. It is, however, against the backdrop of a lacerating housing shortage and the headlong marginalization of so many people in Maine today – young and old, newly arrived and long established – a shameful one.


In saying “no” to the project, Cumberland residents said “no” to the introduction of a modicum of diversity to their town. Diversity is something that many progressive voters are at pains to cheer for and, when it comes down to it, uninterested in incorporating into their own lives.

Too often reduced to a buzzword and brandished for the wrong reasons, diversity is a quality that carries real and appreciable benefits. It creates economic dynamism, fosters equality, promotes mutual understanding and enriches community, which is in chillingly short supply in 2024.

If we decide in Maine that we are not interested in these things, that we are not interested in living alongside new people, or other people, we will be poorer for it. There is a limit to how far structural advantage can be defended before, in a homogeneous vacuum, it begins to fall apart.

In a co-authored letter to the editor sent to the Press Herald ahead of the March 5 vote, the Revs. Allison Smith (senior minister, Congregational Church of Cumberland) and Linda Brewster (pastor, Tuttle Road Community Church of Cumberland) summed up the challenging reality locally, painting a picture that will be all too familiar to readers across our state.

“We know seniors who need to downsize and want to stay in the community where they have invested decades. We know preschool teachers who nurture our youngest children and cannot afford to live here. We know recent immigrants who are working in nursing facilities caring for elders who are ready to contribute. We know young adults who want to come home and build their lives but they cannot afford to live here,” they wrote.

“Staying with the status quo will only make things worse for members of our community. Staying with the status quo will not improve the very difficult situation we are facing.”

The vulnerability of each of these different demographic groups, in the end, is Cumberland’s vulnerability. The town’s residents seem content to find that out the hard way.

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