Hundreds gathered at the Maine Real Estate & Development Association’s annual spring conference on Wednesday to hear experts talk about the creative approaches needed for forward-thinking housing development.

MEREDA’s conference was themed “Penciling the Future: Understanding the Changes Impacting Successful Development.” It focused on utilizing sometimes overlooked small lots, historic preservation tax credits and the transformation of Portland’s land-use codes to develop more housing amid a shortage of stock and a competitive market.

The conference room at the Holiday Inn Portland-By The Bay was packed with architects, attorneys and agents; bankers and brokers; contractors, developers and planners.

“Promoting responsible development is key. Smart growth isn’t any growth. Smart Growth is designing for the future, designing for how people live, designing for a 15-minute community,” said Craig Young, MEREDA’s outgoing president.

In between panels and lectures, attendees snacked on cubed cheese and bell peppers. Some talked about the new developments they were involved in. Men in suits and ties had rousing debates on Taylor Swift’s relationship with Travis Kelce, the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end.

Once the sessions began, everyone focused in. Very few scrolled on the phones or whispered to their neighbors.

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The conference focused on creative ways to approach housing development, utilizing historic tax credits and the transformation of Portland’s zoning regulations.

Maine’s affordable housing crisis hung in the air, but did not take center stage.

The conference was instead focused on the need for all kinds of housing and the creative ways to develop within the limitations of location, available land and density regulations. Expanding all housing opportunities, some in the industry said, is what will ultimately lead to more affordable prices.

“The historical way to make housing affordable to middle-class people without subsidy is like building more housing. If they have to compete on the same market with people with more resources, they’re going to continue to lose,” said Tyler Norod, the director of real estate development at Westbrook Development Corporation. “Housing is an ecosystem. If any part of the food chain falls short and becomes limited supply, the rest of the food chain suffers and that’s what we’re experiencing right now with housing.”

MAINE NEEDS MODERN SOLUTIONS FOR MORE HOMES

MEREDA put on four talks over the course of four hours. They all looked at different ways to expand housing amid a severe shortage in Maine.

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Maine needs 84,000 new homes to accommodate existing residents and the additional 35,000 people the state anticipates will move here by 2030, according to an October 2023 report from MaineHousing.

And a March 2023 report discovered over half of Maine’s poorest renters cannot find affordable housing, spending more than 50% of their income on rent.

Jonathan Tate, a nationally recognized architect, urban designer and developer from New Orleans, kicked the afternoon off with an hour-long talk about his work in Mississippi. He has spent 13 years running his firm OJT, where he has built innovative homes utilizing every inch of space on small lots to create more housing. He also presented his work in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he has developed different projects from housing to general stores, breweries and event venues. That expansive kind of development, he said, is an important way to not only open up housing opportunities, but offer people reasons to move there.

He also created a guidebook on best practices for small-scale development, whether that means utilizing very small lots or building accessory dwelling units, that he encouraged attendees to think about when creating housing in Maine.

“It’s about growing a development community within a neighborhood versus a development community coming to a neighborhood,” Tate said.

Maine developers also spoke on a panel about Maine’s historic tax credits, a state-run program that incentivizes developers to rehabilitate historic structures by offering them credits that lower taxes.

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The day ended up with a roundtable, moderated by Tate, Portland city employees and Norod, the Westbrook developer.

Portland Planning and Urban Development’s Kevin Kraft and Nell Donaldson are leading ReCode Portland, a long endeavor to expansively rewrite the city’s Land Use Code for the first time in 50 years.

Kraft, Donaldson and Norod talked about the ways that changes in ReCode, either approved or proposed, aim to loosen strict density requirements and adjust building standards – like parking mandates or setback requirements – to make it easier for developers and homeowners to create more housing.

Young, the departing MEREDA president, hopes that the lessons from the conference can reach audiences beyond people deeply involved in the industry.

“There’s a lot of big developers who do these big developments. But there’s also a lot of folks here who have never built anything, who have always wanted to build something,” Young said. “Maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the inkling to go and buy a little lot and build a house on it.”

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