If we’re going to solve Maine’s housing crisis, all hands have to be on deck.

At a conference last week on the subject of affordable housing, Gov. Janet Mills sent a message along these lines this to Maine towns – and to Mainers.

“There is nothing to fear,” the governor said in remarks opening the event. “We are all in this together. The whole state needs you to do your part.”

Mills was referring to the embrace – or, indeed, the rejection – of new affordable housing developments across the state. Speaking later in the day, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior housing adviser, doubled down.

“So long as we continue to operate in a system where the comfortably housed get to decide where and when others are comfortably housed, we can’t be surprised (by resistance),” Payne said.

He’s right.


Until the system shows more promising signs of change, however, what can be done? Resourceful, creative actions that maximize existing buildings and land. There have been some decent examples of late.

We learned last week about a proposal by state lawmakers to convert three disused courthouses into affordable housing complexes. As it stands, the vacant buildings in York, Biddeford and Sanford cost the state $350,000 in maintenance annually.

The proposal to transfer the properties to local housing authorities for a “nominal” cost makes eminent sense, and the idea itself should be applauded. A Biddeford lawmaker referred to the proposal as a “no-brainer.” The response of the executive director of the Biddeford Housing Authority, Guy Gagnon, brought home the pitiful conditions he and his colleagues around the state have been forced to work under for years.

“We’re way ahead of the game on the cost spectrum as far as creating housing there (in the courthouse building),” Gagnon told Maine Public. “That’s not something we have happen to us very often. Usually we’re redeveloping the worst building in town.”

The move shouldn’t be as unusual as it is; as we reported last week, state law gives MaineHousing and local housing authorities first right to purchase state property, it’s just that this right is very seldom exercised – the state’s offerings generally aren’t in the right location or conducive to retrofitting.

Something like the courthouse proposal won’t come along everyday. The good news is that in order to be a valuable part of the housing creation mix, it doesn’t have to.


At the housing conference last week, it was announced that – thanks to a recent bill authorizing more bonds for financing the construction of housing – MaineHousing will finance the construction of 105 affordable units for rent in Hallowell, Newcastle, Rockport, Rumford, Sanford and Waterville. A combination of sources of land, structures and developers is what will help solve Maine’s housing crisis. There is, as we are by now painfully aware, no panacea.

In Kennebunk earlier this month, there was landslide support for a ballot question asking residents if they supported permission for Kennebunk Savings Bank to use land it owns and does not use for a 70-unit affordable housing development for older Mainers.

With 2,226 votes in favor and 412 votes against, voters approved a zoning exception that will pave the way for the joint project of the local bank and the nonprofit housing provider Avesta Housing. The housing is designated for those aged 55 or older who make up to 60% of area median income.

Bradford C. Paige, Kennebunk Savings Bank chief executive and president, told the Press Herald last July that he was motivated to do something worthwhile with the undeveloped land. This confluence of resources, vision and motivation is, again, rare – but we don’t doubt that there’s scope for more of it around the state.

“The approval is one significant step forward of many needed to secure housing stability for older adults in our communities,” Paige said in a statement after the vote. “The overwhelming support demonstrates that the people of Kennebunk are here to look out for each other – neighbor helping neighbor. And we’re proud to be one of those neighbors (who just happens to be a bank).”

Just as is in the interest of the state to relinquish state-owned space that would be put to far better use as housing, it’s in the interest of business owners and employers to identify ways in which they might support housing affordability and, by connection, the local economy and the people behind it.

While Maine continues its work on conditions that allow more housing to be built, inventive initiatives like these deserve to be respected – and emulated.

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