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Maine’s aggressive housing policy push runs into history of strong local control

Louis Ouellette of Locbid Construction guides a crane operator over the radio as a panel of cross-laminated timber for an elevator shaft gets hoisted into place at an Avesta Housing building site in Portland on July 2, 2020.
Troy R. Bennett
Louis Ouellette of Locbid Construction guides a crane operator over the radio as a panel of cross-laminated timber for an elevator shaft gets hoisted into place at an Avesta Housing building site in Portland on July 2, 2020.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has advanced a housing policy agenda that would be among the most aggressive in the nation in addressing soaring costs, but it faces a difficult path in a state where local control runs deep.

It comes amid growing concerns about housing availability and affordability. Wages have not kept pace with rising housing prices, particularly in southern Maine, where most of Maine’s population growth has occurred over the past decade. The hot housing market during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

A draft report released Thursday by a legislative housing commission proposed a range of solutions, including eliminating single-family zoning and annual caps on home construction, allowing homeowners to add accessory units like in-law apartments and allowing up to four units to be built in lots now zoned for one. It wants to steer aid to municipalities with housing-friendly policies and consider a state board that could overturn local development decisions.

It is a dream slate for housing policy wonks that provides a blueprint for how the state could substantially increase stock. But the Legislature must approve this major intervention into planning, a subject that the state has largely pulled out of over the past decade, and it could encounter pushback from localities skeptical of losing oversight.

The commission, established this year in a bill from House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was tasked with addressing housing shortages, particularly for low- and middle-income households. The median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose to nearly $1,100 in 2020, level not affordable for the median renter household, according to data from the Maine State Housing Authority. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates the state is short roughly 19,000 housing units for low-income families.

The problem is most dramatic in the greater Portland area, where a January report from the Greater Portland Council of Governments found just 5 percent of land is zoned for multi-family housing with few limiting factors. Last week, developers canceled a 46-unit affordable housing project in wealthy Cape Elizabeth after petitioners got signatures to send it to referendum.

The recommendations aim to build on “best practices” from other states and municipalities to address housing shortages, said Jeff Levine, a former Portland city planner who wrote the greater Portland report and sits on the commission. He noted items that would provide support and incentives for municipalities in addition to changes overruling some local ordinances.

Zoning changes have become a more prominent tool to address rising housing prices across the U.S. in recent years. Action has been more common at the city level, although states have begun to play a greater role, with California and Oregon eliminating single-family zoning.

Maine is different from those West-Coast states. The desire for local control is a sacred principle in politics here. The changes would have a bigger effect in more urban areas. The Portland suburb of Falmouth only allowed 65 new single-family homes this year, a cap exhausted quickly during a building boom. Many smaller towns have relatively few zoning restrictions.

The state has largely acceded to towns recently. A 2007 law that subjected big-box stores to review was repealed by a Republican-led Legislature four years later. The State Planning Office was also disbanded around then, lessening the focus on municipal issues in Augusta.

Some of those functions would be revived under recommendations that would provide assistance to cities and towns. Assistant Senate Minority Leader Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, who was on the panel, saw wide legislative agreement on allowing accessory dwellings and also wants the state office to aid developers in navigating projects.

But he predicted the most sweeping overhauls would not make it through the Legislature, saying while he generally supports denser development as a real estate agent, stricter density mandates may be ineffective in many areas where single-family homes dominate. He also would not want a raft of four-unit homes in the subdivision he lives in near the State House.

“That’s selfish because I live there, but every Mainer is going to think about their little neighborhood, too,” he said.

Municipal interests are still watching the debate closely. Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association and a commission member, supported most of the recommendations, but the association is against changes eroding the authority of member cities and towns, including eliminating growth caps and the state-level appeals board.

Dufour hoped those items were struck from the eventual package and that the state offers municipalities help reaching the goals that it outlines, since local officials are going to be charged with “keeping the peace” once state policy trickles down to outcomes.

Levine, who now teaches land-use planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recognized the historical importance of home rule in Maine, but drew a comparison to state law on shoreland zoning, which requires municipalities to regulate land around ponds and wetlands to prevent pollution and conserve coastal landscapes.

“This whole effort is about sort of creating that same framework for housing and saying, ‘We have statewide needs for housing, and we can give you some leeway as to how to help meet them,’” he said. “But at the end of the day, you need to help participate in this statewide policy need.”

This story appears through a partnership with the Bangor Daily News.