Rockland is hoping to soon take ownership of the McLain School and look for opportunities to turn the building into housing. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

ROCKLAND, Maine ― The city council is forming volunteer committees tasked with coming up with recommendations for how more housing units can be developed in Rockland.

One ad-hoc committee will look at how more apartments can be developed on the upper floors of downtown buildings, and a second will work on developing recommendations for repurposing a former school building into housing.

The city council first created these committees in 2017; however neither produced any concrete results. The downtown committee never met. The McLain School committee received proposals from developers, but discussions fizzled after the city failed to solidify plans for the building and the district needed the space.

With affordable housing options becoming increasingly scarce in the region, city officials hope that reviving the committees is one way the city can begin to come up with possible solutions.

“If this is a solution you really think could work, get involved,” Rockland City Councilor Sarah Austin said.

Rockland, like many midcoast communities, has struggled to remain affordable. Median home prices in Knox County are about $30,000 more than the average homebuyer can easily afford. In Rockland alone, more than 50 percent of residents can’t afford the median home price of $167,000, which is about $15,000 more than what the average household can afford, according to MaineHousing data from 2019.

Likewise, rentals in Rockland are unaffordable to most people. In 2020, the average cost of a two-bedroom rental in the city was about $1,500 per month with utilities, according to Maine Housing data. In order to afford this rent, a household would need to have a yearly income of about $60,000. However, the average income of a renter in Rockland is only $33,500.

The city recently rolled back restrictions on accessory dwelling units in a move aimed at creating more housing and tamping down high rental prices.

In recent years, the possibility of converting the McLain School into an apartment building has been touted as another way the city can increase the housing inventory. The school was built in 1896 and served students until about 20 years ago, when it became the administrative offices for Regional School Unit 13.

Discussions around the city taking ownership of the building began about five years ago and the original McLain School housing committee was formed as a result. However, the process has been delayed because RSU 13 has needed the additional space and the city never moved forward with a solid plan for the building.

Earlier this year, the school district renewed its commitment to transferring ownership of the building to the city. Though the district’s superintendent has said that will likely not happen during the current school year.

With this option back on the table, the city is reviving the committee tasked with seeking development proposals for the school. At their meeting Monday night, the city council also approved a zoning change that would allow for housing units to be created within the school.

“This is a long term project in coordination with RSU 13 and such time as they are able to deaccession the building and offer it to the city, we would like to be prepared to approach developers who can work on the project of converting it into housing,” Austin said.

While there are a number of existing apartment units on the upper floors of downtown buildings, the second committee established by the city council will look for ways that more can be developed.

No city ordinances outright bar the development of housing units on the upper floors of downtown buildings; however, some buildings might be more suitable for development than others.

“There are a lot of untapped residential units available in the downtown,” Rockland’s assistant code enforcement officer Wyatt Philbrook said. “As far as what is keeping them from being developed it could be specific to a building, or fire or code office requirements that can’t be met without significant investment.”