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Lawmaker Discusses Proposal For More Energy Efficient, Affordable Housing In Maine

David Goldman
The sun rises over Downtown Lewiston, Maine, Friday, March 17, 2017.

The Maine Legislature is considering a bill that aims to address the state's lack of affordable housing, the need for increased energy efficiency and the need for new jobs.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with State Representative Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth, who is sponsoring the bill. It recently came out of committee and is now before the full legislature.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: The National Low Income Housing Coalition says Maine needs nearly 20,000 affordable rentals. How much of that demand might your measure be able to satisfy?

Rebecca Millett
Sen. Rebecca Millett is seen at the State House in Augusta in this May 6, 2019, file photo. Credit: BDN

Millett: I was astounded when I did the math and realized that even with a $100 million investment, we will only take care of a fraction of that need. It's discouraging in one sense, but yet incredibly mobilizing in terms of knowing that we have to get really serious, really quickly about this issue.

Why is it important for the affordable homes that would be built on this program to be energy efficient?

Being in in a safe, healthy, stable home is critical. I've discovered through the Maine Climate Council that 20% of Maine's green gas emissions come from our housing. So when we're investing this kind of money in new housing, it makes sense to then be holistic in the way we look at it

As you know, the housing market's crunch has only been exacerbated by the pandemic: home sales are up, many out-of-state buyers, prices have been moving higher as a result with homes in short supply. How has all of that affected your thinking and planning for this piece of legislation?

I find it extremely concerning, because for over nine years now, we have been told by our business community that their number one issue isn't taxes, it's workforce. But we've always had a housing issue, a workforce housing issue. And now it's just getting worse. And so I'm really hoping that our business community and our labor community and then the administration and the Legislature really can lean into this, not just pass this bill and make this investment but commit to doing this on a regular sustained basis until we really have this under control.

Where does the $100 million come from?

It came from me saying how much can my colleagues tolerate? And thinking big, about a big problem.

But again, where is the money going to come from? Are we talking about a bond issue? Are we talking about a particular source of federal or state revenue?

So I actually amended the bill to be an appropriation, thinking that at least it would put it in the in the mix for any budget discussions, any kind of appropriations table negotiations. And then ARPA [the American Rescue Plan Act], the relief plan, came into being and the governor has included in her outline of its use $50 million towards housing. So I'm taking a very close look at that and hoping that we can come together and find a path forward. Whatever we make available can be leveraged to access federal funds as well, that's a very critical part of the equation.

Let me talk about a couple other things with you that may be obstacles. We're beginning to see the cost of construction materials go up. Obviously, that could impact how much housing could be built with whatever sum of money, correct?

That's been a extensive conversation with the stakeholders. There's not a lot I can do about that, or we can do, but hope that we can bring in some alternative construction sources. I know in Maine, we're working on that and utilizing our own natural resources.

The other thing that happens sometimes, too, is questions of land use and zoning and individual communities: that can sometimes also increase the cost of actually building something. Is there a way in which the state needs to, for lack of a better term, lean on localities to make it easier to build affordable housing?

This is an area where we have to be strategic and smart. We have to be respectful of that fact that that's where a lot of Mainers come from, and they like having control over what happens in their communities. But NIMBYism is alive and well. And I would say, we as legislators and the administration in particular, Main Housing in particular, could probably do more, to be supportive of our colleagues at the local level, to help inform this discussion and provide ways for communities to collaborate so not one or two communities are continually being turned to for affordable Housing while others make it difficult.

How confident are you that with this legislation and with the monies that may be available, that you can kind of bend the curve on satisfying some of this demand?

I think the real question is, is can we keep our laser-like focus on this issue long enough? The number of bills that we have before the legislature to tackle this issue from all aspects is indicative that that's likely to happen.