Affordable housing is in short supply in Maine. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Nancy E. Smith is the executive director of GrowSmart Maine.

The housing need in Maine is great, with solutions lagging far behind and overdue. Five building blocks of state policy to increase housing stock in Maine, with a particular focus on affordable housing, have been reported out of legislative committees and are headed to the House and Senate where debate will likely continue. While one bill has received much attention, and for good reason, other legislation offers solid advances in equitable access to housing and related economic and educational opportunities.

GrowSmart Maine has advocated in support of these five proposals while encouraging changes that would better meet the intended goals and ideally do so while advancing the state’s climate action goals.

LD 1961 was brought forward by Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and in its amended version, strengthens existing housing goals in Maine’s Growth Management Law by examining and addressing economic disparities in housing.

LD 1673, sponsored by House Majority Whip Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, is greatly changed from its original version, and creates ongoing accountability toward the goal of 10 percent of housing stock in service center communities be affordable for low- and middle-income families. It also denotes four levels of these communities, so that strategies can evolve to suit different sized cities and towns.

LD 1240 is a bill GrowSmart Maine brought to Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, which originally called for a complete overhaul of the Growth Management Act, finding solutions to the property tax differential between service centers and surrounding towns, and addressing other regional barriers to housing choices that were captured at our 2020 Summit. In its amended form, it calls for a commission to address housing and short-term rentals as important incremental steps toward addressing barriers to affordable housing.

LD 1694, brought forward by Build Maine and sponsored by Rep. Melanie Sachs, D-Freeport, creates the framework for a statewide land bank to support communities in reclaiming and restoring to the market properties that are derelict, abandoned, or functionally obsolete. Buildings that detract from a neighborhood can be restored to active use with this new community revitalization tool, with municipalities leading the process. Other provisions of this bill, which GrowSmart Maine opposed, were removed as the committee and stakeholders reworked  the bill to earn a final vote of 12 to 1 in support.

LD 2003 is House Speaker Ryan Fecteau’s bill. We were involved in the Commission on Housing & Zoning that came forward with the recommendations that are the basis for this legislation, which provides significant funding for regional and municipal efforts to update zoning and land use ordinances and then to implement housing plans, while also outlining several mandated zoning and ordinance requirements. As one of our board members recently noted, “this is a watershed moment for planning.” We recognize the need for greater density to address the housing gap, and we know that appropriate siting of new housing is critical to meeting household and municipal needs, as well as Maine’s climate goals. This need for balance highlights the importance of technical and financial assistance funded in this amended bill to help communities craft ways to locate housing where appropriate.

Affordable housing should not be a partisan issue. None of these bills gained 100 percent committee support, and many of the votes were partisan, but that is the nature of the work. As the full Legislature considers these bills, perhaps they can find ways to improve them, but we encourage passage of this suite of proposals, which taken together, will have an almost immediate positive impact by increasing housing opportunities.

GrowSmart Maine supports communities as they navigate change, and our advocacy on these bills is a significant part of our work. Smart growth begins with land use planning and while it looks different in small towns than it does in our cities, the principles are the same. Smart growth encourages balancing economic, fiscal, and environmental priorities while building social community and neighborhoods.