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New commission says it'll focus on expanding affordable housing at all levels

Resort Rental Dispute
Michael Hill
Pedestrians walk down Main Street, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 in Lake Placid, N.Y. The surge in the number of short-term rentals in this Adirondack Mountain resort is alarming local residents who fear it is changing the character of the village.

A new commission that is exploring short-term rentals and their potential impact on Maine's affordable housing crisis met for the first time Tuesday.

It's unclear exactly how many short-term rentals are in Maine, but some panel members say they believe a growing number of them are taking housing options off the market for full-time residents.

Understanding the impact that short-term rentals may have on Maine's housing challenges is a top focus for a new commission.

But the panel promised to review all options, with the goal of increasing affordable housing stocks for all income levels. State officials say the housing problems facing low income Mainers now also affect those with moderate income levels. Entry-level teachers, foresters, farmers and fisherman are among those earning below the income threshold for a MaineHousing financed affordable home, said Dan Brennan, the agency's director.

Judy East of Maine's Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, says the commission will have to strike a delicate balance between the needs of property owners who rely on short-term rentals as a source of income and Mainers who don't have stable, affordable housing.

"There are, I have to underscore, significant advantages to property owners in terms of income, flexibility, investment, affordability, aging in place," she told the commission Tuesday. "But the negative community impacts are not insignificant."

East says neither the state nor municipalities have enough planning resources to devote to developing affordable housing.

And Laura Mitchell of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition suggested the panel consider whether a bond is needed to shore up more housing resources.

"Housing is critical infrastructure for our residents, for our businesses, for our economy and the health of our state," she said. "We need to start thinking about housing as infrastructure that is required.

Mitchell also suggested short-term rental fees or taxes on vacation homes, though some panel members say they're skeptical of those ideas.

The commission is expected to issue recommendations to the legislature in November.