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Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives.
If you believe Maine needs a strong, diversified economy like I do, we have to talk about what is happening right now in the local housing market.
The supply of housing isn’t keeping up with demand.
Maine home prices are increasing rapidly. This may sound like an ideal scenario for Realtors, but according to Madeleine Hill, president of the Maine Association of Realtors, with every sale, it’s not uncommon to send up to 20 painful rejection notices to hopeful homebuyers. The market is not only a challenge for buyers. For example, when an aging parent is ready to sell their home and wishes to downsize, there are few affordable rental options and even fewer smaller homes to purchase.
As Maine became an attractive, safe place to relocate during the pandemic and our population grew, we saw a glimmer of hope! Our state desperately needed population growth to maintain a healthy workforce, but today, the lack of housing is catching up to us.
In this market, renters are staying in rental units longer. When people want to relocate here for a job, it is harder to find an affordable rental. The waitlist for affordable housing has ballooned to over 25,000 people statewide, showing that Mainers who might normally be getting by and renting are being pushed into homelessness. Maine schools reported an increase in homeless students in 2021. Housing insecurity destabilizes our families and our workforce.
The situation is dire. The crisis we are experiencing now is only going to grow unless we take action.
We can’t wait for somebody else to fix this problem. That’s why I’m sponsoring a bipartisan bill to tackle this crisis in a new, simple way.
You see, in many towns, zoning and land use regulations that have been on the books for decades are preventing sensible, attainable housing from being built on land already zoned for housing.
It’s not the fault of municipalities who’ve adopted red tape that stops housing from being built. Starting about 100 years ago, federal and state housing policy dictated many of these rules. But strict zoning regulations are now preventing families from being able to make even slight changes on their own land to help solve our statewide problem; it should not be illegal to add an in-law apartment for an aging family member over the garage.
This bill would make in-law apartments and accessory dwelling units legal in Maine towns. It would allow, In single-family zones, up to four residential units to be built, provided other health and safety requirements, such as minimum sewer and lot sizes, are met. The overall aim? To
add housing options for more people at all income levels and to allow Mainers to build these options on property they own.
Conservatives like this bill because of the personal property rights it affords citizens. Environmentalists like this bill because it encourages density and infill, not sprawl. Progressives agree that our housing crisis is a social justice issue that demands attention.
Some municipalities have already updated zoning regulations. Auburn has nixed single-family zoning and will add 800 new units over two years. Brunswick now has 100 secondary units thanks to minor zoning updates. Meanwhile, supply and demand issues in other towns have reached a fever pitch. Belfast is considering updates to facilitate housing construction now. College of the Atlantic recently announced they’re building new housing to shield students from MDI’s runaway housing prices.
Updating our zoning rules won’t cost much — grants and technical support will be awarded to towns revising zoning — but it would start boosting supply to meet demand. It would help folks make ends meet by renting out modest properties to our workforce and create pathways to prosperity for more Maine families. It’s time we abandon outdated regulations and all communities step up to increase affordable housing options. If Maine communities subscribe to the idea that housing is a problem, but not theirs to solve, who will be left to solve this ballooning crisis? We need more housing for Maine families and it’s on all of us to make it happen.