A sign points toward building lots at an Augusta housing development on Friday, April 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Even as Maine lawmakers and advocacy groups are debating the pros and cons of a housing bill designed to ease the state’s affordable housing crisis through a statewide zoning change, some experts caution that alone cannot solve the problem.

For an example, you need not look farther than the midcoast city of Belfast. Eight years ago, municipal officials concerned about a lack of in-town housing options reduced minimum lot sizes and allowed detached accessory buildings on lots located within the more densely populated downtown district.

City officials hoped the changes would lead to more affordable housing, but that’s not how it unfolded. Since 2014, only five or so detached accessory buildings have been built in this zone.

“It’s something that we discuss a lot,” Bub Fournier, the director of the city’s code and planning department, said. “We often refer back to the work that was started in 2014. It hasn’t had enough of an effect to solve our housing issues.”

To Fournier, that speaks to the limitations of zoning when it comes to a broad, multi-faceted problem like the housing crisis.

A house sits under construction in a new Augusta development on Friday, April 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I think you can lay this groundwork for projects to happen,” he said. “But there are much greater forces out there. It seems like zoning is something that government can do. But unless we’re getting into something like creating a housing authority or doing development projects, we’re not making more housing. We’re making more housing opportunities.”

To him, in the face of other forces that include the tight housing market, the lack of labor and the skyrocketing costs of building materials, simply allowing for more housing does not mean that it will be built.

Still, zoning — and the hopes of what it could do to ease the statewide crisis — is a critical component of the bipartisan bill that aims to address Maine’s shortage of affordable housing.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, originally included almost all of the recommendations of a legislative committee on housing. It was seen as showcasing an aggressive approach by the legislature to address the growing concern about the lack of affordable housing in Maine, but was amended last month to remove some of the most controversial provisions.

If passed as amended, the bill would significantly change zoning laws to allow for the construction of multifamily dwelling units on lots previously zoned for one unit and to require municipalities to allow accessory dwelling units.

Frank D’Alessandro of Maine Equal Justice, a nonprofit civil legal aid and economic justice organization that serves the state, is a proponent of the bill. He said that while zoning alone cannot fix the housing crisis, bad zoning like the common suburban and rural practice of requiring a two-acre minimum lot for a single-family home exacerbates it. 

“That almost by definition excludes low and now middle income people from participating in homeownership,” he said. “Removing barriers to the creation of housing, so that more housing can be created, is a necessary step.”

But it can’t do everything. That’s apparent to him when he thinks about Portland, a city which doesn’t lack for new housing. But the housing being constructed today in formerly working-class neighborhoods such as Munjoy Hill is far from affordable. For many developers, the math works best if they can recoup their investment through market rate rental and housing prices, and zoning can’t necessarily change that.

Portland voters tried. In November 2020, they approved the “Green New Deal,” a progressive referendum that required developers of new or substantially altered buildings with 10 or more units to make a quarter of them affordable. After it passed, the city saw a falloff in new plan submissions, with some developers saying that the requirements made it less affordable to build and recoup investments.

“Zoning by itself is not enough,” D’Alessandro said. “It’s part of the solution. It’s not the entire solution.”

A sold sign sits on a parcel of land in an Augusta housing development on Friday, April 1, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Cate Blackford of the Maine People’s Alliance would also like to eliminate other exclusionary practices. Those include not allowing multi-family housing, “really high” parking space requirements, one- or two-story height limits and growth caps that limit the number of housing units that can be built in a year.  

“Those are the typical means of making exclusionary zoning. What that does is say that only the people who can afford that kind of housing can be part of that community,” she said. “It doesn’t allow the community to grow in a way that is sustainable.”

And sustainable growth is something that Maine needs, Blackford said. She believes communities are stronger when there is a broad diversity of housing options for people just starting out, for people who are older and living on a fixed income, for families and others.

Right now, many Mainers can’t afford to live close to where they work, she said.

“If you can live in a place where you have ties and can afford to do so, then the community is stronger,” she said.

The Maine Municipal Association, however, opposes the bill.  

“We absolutely agree that there’s a problem,” Kate Dufour, the director of advocacy and communications for the Maine Municipal Association, said. “We need more housing, more affordable, more senior, more workforce housing. But not every solution is going to fit every community, because we’re different.”

Rather than support the bill as proposed, her group would like to see planners or others with experience figure out how to best implement the recommendations of the committee on housing and then offer municipalities several different zoning options to choose from.

“What works in Madawaska is not necessarily going to work in Augusta, or Kittery, or anywhere else,” she said. “Let’s figure out what’s unique to you … and let’s figure out what we need.”

But from the perspective of Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley, who said he is seeing daily how his city is being affected by the housing crisis, a slower approach is not best. Councilors in Belfast soon will vote on another series of sweeping zoning changes they hope will ease the problem there.  

“People cannot find a place to rent. They can’t find a place to buy. It is a crisis,” he said. “There is no way to describe it other than that.”

Some Mainers may be concerned that amending zoning will change their neighborhoods and communities in ways they don’t like, he said. But to him, that’s not enough of a reason to stick with the status quo.

“It’s fear of the worst case, is what it is,” he said. “But we do not need to kick this down the road. We need to do this stuff. We need to do it last year.”