Affordable Housing Solutions Discussed
By Kirsten Hebert, Legislative Advocate, MMA State & Federal Relations
from Maine Townsman, October 2002)

Last month, the MAINE TOWNSMAN featured an article detailing the status of affordable housing in Maine.  The article identified the affordable housing concerns unique to five municipalities from Scarborough to Bangor. The article also outlined innovative measures municipalities are using to create affordable housing units. 

Determined to find solutions to the ongoing affordable housing problem, the Maine Town & City Management Association sponsored a panel discussion at the MMA Convention that provided a brief overview of the housing problem in the state, as well as showcased several design concepts that may encourage affordable housing.  Among the guest speakers were Frank O’Hara, Vice President of  South Portland-based Planning Decisions and Michael Finnegan, Executive Director of Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA).

Frank O’Hara told municipal officials that they must change the way they view new development. Rather than immediately equating new development with increased local costs for expanded road systems, public safety programs or school costs, municipal officials should practice thinking about new residential construction as the key to economic development.  According to O’Hara, this “psychology of housing” is a crucial element to Maine’s economic future.  This new view of residential development rests on two footings: increased opportunity for economic development, and designing new development so as not to create an extra burden on the property tax. 

O’Hara explained that over the last 40 years, Maine’s population growth rate has gone flat. Attracting young people to this state is imperative for income and economic growth.  It is impossible to attract a young, skilled labor force to Maine without having residential space for these relocated workers to reside.  O’Hara contends that individuals will only move to Maine if they are confident that they can secure affordable housing.  He pointed out that within the last ten years Maine has not created enough housing to match job growth.  As an example, the Greater Portland area experienced the creation of 29,000 jobs while only 8000 homes were constructed within that same time period.

O’Hara claims that the lack of affordable housing is a problem in many communities throughout Maine, not just in the southern part of the State. An influx of residents from other New England states has relocated to Maine and these new residents initially contributed to sharp growing pains in southern Maine.  Within the last few years that population has continued to migrate to the mid-state region, with significant “in-filling” in a majority of coastal communities.  At the same time, Maine has long-held the distinction of being one of the highest home-ownership states in the nation, and fully 70% of Maine residents own their own homes. O’Hara believes one of the primary reasons that affordable housing is not addressed at the municipal level is because the the town councils or the boards of selectmen are typically comprised of homeowners, therefore the issue of housing affordability is rarely a priority.  He said that if renters were to attend town meetings and bring these issues to the forefront,  municipal leaders would be forced to address the issue.

Michael Finnegan began with the observation that Maine’s economy is fast moving away from its 20th Century manufacturing base, and connected that loss of Maine’s industrial stronghold  with the need for tax reform and a restructuring of the school funding formula, both of which must be addressed in order to attack the issue of affordable housing.  According to Finnegan, 700 houses or housing units have to be built or revitalized for every 1,000 jobs that are created.  He said the choice facing the municipalities is to either take steps to strategically plan for development and economic growth or to sit back and hope that it happens without any local leadership.  MSHA believes that the latter approach is detrimental to the economy.  Municipal officials should take the lead, according to Finnegan, by implementing effective housing development plans to address the particular housing shortages they may be facing.

Finnegan provided municipal officials with a brief overview of ways to require development of affordable housing units or “workforce housing.”  He explained that Lewiston, Bangor, Van Buren, Auburn and Westbrook received grant money from the Maine City Task Force Program.  Municipalities are required to meet the state grant with a dollar-for-dollar local match. The four cities and Van Buren are using this money to perform an analysis of their existing housing stock and plan for the positive development of the local housing market. 

To that end, MSHA encourages well-planned communities that contain mixed-use development – the so-called “Great American Neighborhood” design.  Neighborhood-focused development allows residents to walk to stores and places of employment and enjoy open space and recreational areas.  Mixed developments such as these have worked in New Hampshire through the revitalization of mills and factories.  MSHA hopes that Maine communities become as receptive to the mixed-use development design as the communities in our neighboring state.