Start local on housing solutions

A state legislative commission recently released a report proposing a range of solutions to address Maine’s affordable housing crisis. Those proposals include eliminating single-family zoning, allowing up to four residential units on all lots as long as that complies with health and safety requirements, prohibiting municipalities from setting caps on new construction and providing technical and financial assistance for communities to update local zoning and improve housing options. We applaud lawmakers for seeking input from interested parties from around the state and thinking boldly on how to tackle this complex and critical issue.

But in a state where home rule is king, a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be widely embraced. Worse yet, eliminating single-family zoning statewide might shake up urban planning but it would not achieve the intended goal in rural areas. That’s primarily because such zoning does not even exist in a lot of small towns. While many Hancock County residents live in and love neighborhoods with one house per lot, it’s not local zoning that keeps them so. Ellsworth, for example, has for years allowed two major recommendations of the commission’s report — accessory dwellings where single-family residences are permitted and multiple units per lot. The city still faces a housing crisis. Low- to median-income families looking to buy or rent struggle to meet their needs. Employers trying to hire hear from prospective candidates that it is too hard — or too expensive — to find housing in this area.
As the commission’s report notes, “Changes to zoning alone will not address the challenges of housing Maine residents. Zoning is one important aspect of an overall housing policy, but there are other important aspects as well.” Really, zoning may be only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

In 2020, the median home price in Maine was $256,000, up 14 percent over 2019. This past November, the median sales price reached $300,000. The supply is limited. There were 33 percent fewer homes for sale in November 2021 than there were in November 2020 and 59 percent fewer than in November 2019. The median home price is out of reach for many working households. Same goes for renters.

Just over 49 percent of renters are “cost-burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the report.

What we like about the proposals are efforts to shore up support for local planning work. Local officials and residents know best what makes their communities special. They also have the greatest incentive to find ways to protect that way of life while welcoming new residents who can support the tax base, staff vital jobs and send their children to local schools. By reinvesting in state-level planning resources, the Legislature could provide a framework to offer Maine municipalities guidance, evidence-based strategies and sample language for local zoning without mandating far-sweeping rules.

The big question is why there aren’t more developers interested in building affordable housing in places where there is high demand and where it is already relatively easy to do so from a regulatory perspective. Financial risk, lack of infrastructure, the potential for greater profit elsewhere and a shortage of workers in the trades are all factors. Communities should examine them all while strategizing for the future.


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