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State lawmakers debate setting aside tens of millions for new affordable housing projects

Workers remove snow from the roof of a condominium under construction, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
Workers remove snow from the roof of a condominium under construction, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Portland, Maine.

Developers, housing advocates and others spent hours on Friday urging state lawmakers to set aside tens of millions of dollars for the creation of more affordable housing.

There was little disagreement that more funding is needed but no consensus about how much of an investment the Legislature should make.

One measure from Sen. Cameron Reny, D-Lincoln, recommends $20 million over two years for the rural affordable rental housing program. Those funds would help housing developers finance an existing backlog of projects ready for construction in rural Maine.

The state created the rural affordable rental housing program using $10 million in pandemic relief funds, and it exhausted those funds last year almost immediately, said MaineHousing's Erik Jorgensen.

Developers have at least 20 additional affordable housing projects ready to go, but only if more funds are made available through the rural program.

Another bill from Rep. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, calls for $200 million over two years to fund affordable housing projects of any kind.

"I've heard suggestions that we may not get that high, and I totally understand," said Cullen Ryan, the executive director of Community Housing of Maine, which has 230 homes under construction now.

But he urged lawmakers to be bold.

"Please think high," he said. "This is our opportunity; we really need this. We need things that are out there in the future so developers like my organization, Avesta Housing and others can take risks, get things moving and really get us to an end goal of the affordable housing supply that we need."

Mark Green, who leads a coalition of western Maine that who are trying to develop their own housing projects, said local businesses are struggling to fill open jobs because of a lack of affordable options for working families.

"Restaurants that were always open seven days a week are now closed for two, and local sawmills are operating below capacity for lack of help," he said.

It's unclear what direction lawmakers will go, and whether any of these proposals will actually receive funding from the Legislature's budget-writing committee.

Gov. Janet Mills recommended $30 million over two years for both rural affordable rental housing program and another one that's aimed at financing low-income housing projects in more urban settings.

The Legislature's housing committee has already endorsed an $80 million funding proposal for both of those programs.

For it's part, MaineHousing endorsed both proposals under consideration Friday.

"There's no doubt we could use $200 million for housing production," Jorgensen said. "But we would not likely be able to do that over the course of a single biennium."

A consistent stream of funds for affordable housing creation would be most helpful, he said, because it allows for developers to have some predictability.

"If you could find $40 million for us every year, we could do that forever," Jorgensen said.