A Bangor neighborhood in June 2017. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

The city of Bangor has looked to zoning changes to spur the development of more housing in recent years as the city faces a housing crunch and sees its homeless population grow.

But it could take several years before those changes have an effect and meet the demand for new housing.

The city has passed a few proposals intended to encourage denser development and construction of more housing units, like reducing the required minimum lot size throughout much of the city in 2020 and allowing in-law apartments.

It has also considered but not made other changes, like making it easier to convert large houses into boarding homes and reducing the number of required parking spaces for each unit. In addition, the city commissioned a study to look at regulating short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO units that have strained the availability of long-term rental units in a number of cities.

Many of the changes stemmed from a list of recommendations that came out of a citywide housing work group in 2019.

Bangor also supports a bill in the Legislature that would provide state assistance when the city takes over condemned buildings, so the properties can be renovated and turned back into livable homes.

Another bill, led by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, proposes an overhaul of housing regulations that currently favor single-family homes over denser development, but cities and towns have protested its “one-size-fits-all” approach.

It’s unlikely that those proposals would spur immediate development of new housing as Bangor residents of all income levels face intense competition for a limited number of available and affordable homes, and the city’s homeless population is expected to increase as the weather warms. However, the changes can pave the way for more development in the long term.

Municipal changes, like zoning amendments, can lower barriers for developers, but a market for new units, an available labor pool for builders and financial incentives to produce affordable units must also exist. The construction of new housing as a result of those conditions is likely to occur gradually.

Bangor has seen the introduction of some new housing recently.

Penquis opened a 40-unit affordable housing complex for seniors on Grandview Avenue in October, and Community Housing of Maine plans to rent out new  apartments at the former Schoolhouse on Harlow Street next summer. Other developers have bought some downtown Bangor buildings and begun renovating them to rent out as high-end apartments, but a need for low-income housing persists.

At the same time, supply chain delays and rising costs of construction materials have made development more expensive, stymying progress as Maine faces a housing shortage of 25,000 units.

The city housing group identified zoning restrictions as a barrier to building more housing, spurring ideas like the boarding house proposal and allowing in-law apartments, Bangor planning officer Anne Krieg said.

“We want to see infill development, we want to see building new housing options, and I think that will happen on its own because the market is there,” she said, citing the red-hot nature of Bangor real estate.

While zoning amendments won’t immediately compel new housing, they signal that cities like Bangor are open to new development, said Jeff Levine, a former Portland city planner who now teaches urban planning at MIT and works as a consultant.

“Changing zoning in and of itself doesn’t create housing, because you can’t compel housing,” he said. “The market has to be there and other circumstances have to align. I think it’s a really important step.”

Any changes that cities like Bangor make to compel new housing will be borne out over time, even as the need to house residents grows more urgent, Levine said.

“I think it definitely is reasonable to wait a couple years and see what happens,” he said.

Bangor Housing

Krieg said that she had seen a few proposals for new commercial space in Bangor, but wasn’t aware of any from developers looking to build new residences.

“Sometimes we’re the last to know, in planning, because [developers] will do their due diligence on their own and then they come to us when they’re ready to make applications [for building].”

An influx of state and federal funding has helped produce more units to meet demand, said Dan Brennan, the director of MaineHousing.

The state housing authority last year helped develop “more multifamily apartment buildings than we have in decades,” resulting in more than 500 new units, Brennan said.

“We now have money to put out a single-family subdivision program to build more starter homes,” he said. “That’s pretty exciting on our end, but the private market needs to also produce more reasonably priced apartments and reasonably priced single-family homes.”

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.