A sign welcomes motorists to Rockland on Tuesday Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Five years ago, Portland created a zoning rule that required developers to include affordable housing units in their plans.

Now, Rockland city officials are considering if a similar ordinance could work there.

Final details of the Rockland proposal are still being fleshed out, including the size of housing developments it would apply to. But proponents say this type of inclusionary zoning ordinance could be one way for the city to encourage the development of affordable housing as the region continues to struggle with affordability .

“Seeing how the housing market and interest in the area has just continued to climb, and how in tandem with that our need for housing and the housing crisis locally has already gotten quite out of control, I think it’s important to try to be proactive where we can,” Rockland City Councilor Sarah Austin, who is co-sponsoring the ordinance, said.

Inclusionary zoning is relatively new in Maine, though it has been implemented in other parts of the country, such as in Boston. In 2015, Portland became the first city in the state to adopt it. Rockland would be the second if city councilors pass the ordinance following a public hearing on the proposal next week.

Under the initial zoning proposal submitted by Austin and fellow city councilor Nate Davis in September, the rules would apply to residential developments of six or more units. It would also apply to hotel developments ― or expansions ― of 10 or more rooms. For residential developments, 20-percent of the total units would need to be considered affordable based on the median income of the community. For hotels, the development of one affordable unit for every ten rooms would be required.

After talking with other councilors and local developers, Austin and Davis are making some adjustments to the proposal such as the size of development the rules would apply to and what the fee alternative will be.

Those changes will be finalized by the end of the week, Austin said.

“It will definitely apply to larger developments. … The question is really where it starts and what makes the most sense to balance out not wanting to be detrimental to new development but also to recognize that much of the development we have is not on the massive scale because we’re Rockland, we’re not Boston or Portland,” Austin said.

Even though Rockland does not have any large market-rate housing or hotel developments in the pipeline, Austin said it would be prudent to have this type of a zoning ordinance in place for the future. It’s a way to be proactive instead of reactive, she said.

“I think one of the challenges that we have is that smaller communities have limited staff time and often we’re reacting to a huge avalanche of things that are coming towards us all the time. I think part of it is just having the capacity to have time to develop something and to consider options like this,” Austin said.

Although some argue that requirements like this might deter development, that hasn’t been the case in Portland, according to Portland’s Director of Planning and Urban Development Christine Grimando.

“We had a fairly robust run of applications come forward,” Grimando said.

Between December 2015 and February 2021, 87 housing workforce housing units were created through inclusionary zoning rules and developers paid about $2.7 million into the city’s housing fund, according to the city’s website. Grimando said those figures have grown since February but did not have updated numbers on hand Tuesday.

When initially passed, Portland’s inclusionary zoning ordinance required housing developments with 10 or more units to meet a 10 percent workforce housing requirement. For rental units, these properties would need to be considered affordable to someone earning 100-percent of the area median income, and for owned-properties, they would need to be considered affordable to someone earning 120-percent of the area median income, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city also allowed developers to pay a fee in lieu of constructing affordable units. The money is used by the city to contribute to affordable housing development, Grimando said.

In 2019, the ordinance was expanded to include hotel developments as well.

In 2020, voters passed a referendum amending the 2015 ordinance, increasing the scope of its impact in terms of affordable units required and requiring them to be affordable to a larger percentage of people.

“It’s still a fairly new change. We will just let it play out,” Grimando said. “But I think there are some indications that we’ve seen something of a drop off. Maybe in the coming year it will rebound. But it could mean [the changes] maybe went bigger than the current market could bear. We’re just going to wait and see and track trends as best we can.”  

Grimando stressed that this zoning ordinance is just one tool that Portland is using to try to encourage the development of affordable housing. In a September meeting with Rockland city councilors, Grimando said that Portland has also lessened restrictions on accessory dwelling units to create more housing.

More communities than ever are talking about how to address the affordable housing problem using a variety of zoning tools, Grimando said. For inclusionary zoning to work as intended, she said the exact scope of the rules would need to vary based on the community.

“I think every community is going to have different thresholds that make sense for when [inclusionary zoning] kicks in and what is asked for,” Grimando said. “There is a lot of ability to dial it in in a way that can make sense for a place and still keep housing coming if that’s what they’re trying to do.”