ROCKLAND, Maine — On a now-empty piece of land off Route 1 once stood 13 small cottages built in the 1930s.
During its heyday, the Philbrick Avenue neighborhood was home to members of the local workforce. But over time, septic systems failed, the cottages fell into disrepair and they could no longer be rented. In 2012, the buildings were demolished.
After purchasing the land in 2017, Midcoast Habitat for Humanity is working to bring the neighborhood back to life during the next few years by building 12 small homes to serve a similar demographic to what the original cottages served.
“It just made sense to redevelop [this property] in the interest of people in the workforce,” Midcoast Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Tia Anderson said.
Midcoast Habitat for Humanity is an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. The nonprofit organization has been working in Knox County for about 30 years to add affordable housing needs by upgrading existing homes and constructing new residences. Anderson said the Philbrick Avenue development will be the organization’s largest project to date.
The project, called Philbrick Commons, will be built in three phases, with four homes being completed at a time. The one- and two-bedroom homes will range from about 650 square feet to 850 square feet.
Because some of the homes will be below the city’s minimum square footage requirement of 700 square feet, a contract zone for the development had to established. Rockland city councilors unanimously approved the contract zone Monday night.
With a misconception floating around that the Philbrick Avenue homes would be “tiny houses,” two councilors made a point of clarifying that these homes would be larger than 400 square feet — the maximum square footage to be considered a tiny house under Maine’s housing code.
“A small house is a small house, and people have lived in small houses for as long as it was what they could afford,” Councilor Amelia Magjik said.
Individuals or families making 30 percent to 80 percent of the median income for Rockland would be eligible to purchase the homes. While Habitat for Humanity works with individuals who are homeless or making closer to 30 percent of the local median income, Anderson said people in need of affordable housing in the area expands to teachers, bank tellers and others making around $35,000, which is 80 percent of the local median income.
Anderson said a substantial portion of Rockland’s population lives in less than satisfactory housing because it’s all they can afford.
“Affordability in our area is a struggle because of the have and the have-nots. You see the waterfront homes and the harbor and village homes, but there are still plenty of people living in what would be considered poverty housing,” Anderson said.
With an aging housing stock, little room for development and an increased interest in Rockland as a tourist destination, the issue of affordable housing has been prominent in the small city during the past year.
Earlier this year, the city council passed a controversial set of zoning changes that reduced minimum lots sizes and other zoning requirements in an attempt to free up more housing opportunities. However, the changes were repealed last month after the city was sued for allegedly failing to follow the appropriate process in pursuing the changes.
Aside from trying to make zoning more flexible, city officials are looking at ways old school buildings can be utilized as housing. At their meeting Monday night, the City Council approved a plan that will allow artists to use four studios in the Lincoln Street Center — a former high school — as their living space as well as their workspace.
Later this year, the city will take ownership of the McLain School, which most recently served as the central office for Regional School Unit 13. A housing task force — formed last year by the City Council — has been looking at ways the large brick building can be converted into affordable housing. City Councilor Valli Geiger said the city has received calls from three developers inquiring about the building.
As the city tries different approaches to address an affordability problem that is affecting a number of coastal communities, Magjik said the work of Midcoast Habitat for Humanity is an important piece of the solution.
“As much as it is really exciting to grow the artists community here and make affordable housing for creative people, here [with Habitat’s development] we’re making affordable housing for all kinds of people,” Magjik said. “I feel like this is a really big turn of events, and I feel, personally, that this is very positive.”