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Affordable housing bill has some bipartisan support, but concerns over local control remain

Speaker Ryan Fecteau outside in Brunswick, announcing new legislation that aims to pave the way for affordable housing development that's both large and small - including these accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.
Patty Wight
Maine Public
Speaker Ryan Fecteau outside in Brunswick on March 2, 2022, announcing new legislation that aims to pave the way for affordable housing development that's both large and small - including these accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Affordable housing in Maine is becoming increasingly sparse. A recent study found that 60% of renters in this state spend more than half of their income on housing. A bill sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Ryan Fecteau aims to chip away at the problem. While the proposal has won some bipartisan support, it's also raised concerns that it will erode the ability of municipalities to make their own housing rules.

Fecteau has already amended his bill to allay fears that it would override local control, a governing philosophy long considered sacred in Maine.

He eliminated a provision that would have allowed a state board to override local government decisions on affordable housing projects, and another that would have barred municipalities from instituting caps on how many new homes can be built each year.

But the proposal is still designed to loosen local zoning restrictions to encourage more affordable housing construction, in part by allowing accessory dwellings to be built on single-family house lots, and by incentivizing towns to update zoning that encourages affordable housing development.

Brunswick Democratic Sen. Matthea Daughtry said last week that the bill is an important complement to local decision making.

"This is not going to turn every single inch of this state into housing," she said. "In fact, what it's going to do, is work with our local municipalities to make sure we are creating growth where we need it, but that every Mainer is able to look around in their community and be able to find housing."

Right now, that's a problem.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that a person needs to earn more than $21 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental in Maine.

And the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which supports Fecteau's bill, worries the situation is going to make the state's workforce shortage worse.

But some municipalities, joined by the organization that represents them, the Maine Municipal Association, have expressed fears that the bill gives the state too much say in local zoning decisions.

Republican Senate leader Jeff Timberlake said during a recent debate that the issue dominated the town meeting in his community of Turner.

"And the citizens of the community that I come from and the people … who voted for to represent them said in the strongest form, 'We don't like this. We're not convinced the state can run our town better than we can," he said.

The affordable housing issue is one fraught with societal divisions over wealth disparity.

Projects at the local level can often face stiff opposition from residents who worry about declining property values, or in some cases, that affordable housing will lead to increased crime.

The latter was emphasized by Calais Republican Sen. Marianne Moore, who read a letter from a concerned constituent during the Senate debate.

"Portland's houses are a testimony to what is happening and what will continue to happen if single-family housing is removed from the face of Maine," Moore read. "Projects of crime and drugs will be on the increase. The bill must be stopped."

Democratic Sen. Craig Hickman, of Winthrop, is a bill co-sponsor who served on the affordable housing commission that recommended some of its provisions.

The commission's report, he said, addresses all of the concerns expressed by the bill's opponents.

"There are studies in here that reject every claim against the bill," he said. "There are court cases in here that reject what I'm just going to call, because we're in the Senate chamber, nonsense," he said.

Hickman said a document distributed to legislators by opponents of the bill is designed to stir up fears about affordable housing that are unfounded.

"I believe this document is meant to be a dog whistle to make everybody in here afraid that their communities are going to be run over by people whom the Fair Housing Act has been passed to protect," he said.

The Fair Housing Act was designed to prevent housing discrimination based on age, religion, gender, disability or race.

Hickman says local control is rightfully cherished in Maine.

"But local control has not solved the problem of access to housing as a human right for all of our people," he said.

The bill last week cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate, 20-13, and was enacted in the House Monday, 77-57.

It will soon go to Gov. Janet Mills, who could sign, veto or allow it to become law without her signature.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.