A man walks up wooden stairs of a home being built
A workman climbs a set of stairs on a building site in Portland on Friday, May 6, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN is exploring Maine’s housing crisis from every possible angle, from how it affects home prices, to what it means for Mainers across the state. Read our ongoing coverage here and fill out this form to tell us what you want to know.

A new housing law in Maine could be a gamechanger for coastal communities hardest hit by a historic shortage of affordable homes.

A bill signed by Gov. Janet Mills last month requires that cities and towns meet universal standards on housing, including allowing two units in lots zoned for single-family homes and permitting the addition of accessory dwelling units, which are smaller homes attached to existing property, in residential areas.

The measure came as Maine sees a historically scarce supply of affordable housing units to rent and buy, with the value of new homes going up over 20 percent in just the past year, according to Zillow. Zoning rules have been seen as a barrier to development of new affordable housing in Maine, especially on Maine’s largely urban southern coast.

It may take a while for Maine to see results from the change, local officials said on Monday. But they cited the accessory dwelling change and anti-discrimination provisions in the law as positive, particularly in greater Portland, which has been the center of high demand and prices.

“I would say it’s time for stronger measures,” Cheryl Sessions, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, said.

Some of the provisions from the law championed by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, do not go into effect until July 2023. One that requires municipalities to ensure housing policy is designed to affirm the federal Fair Housing Act and anti-discrimination policies in the Maine Human Rights Act goes into effect this year.

The effects vary based on the municipality. Diane Townsend, executive director of the Waterville Housing Authority, noted that her city has placed few barriers on new affordable housing. While some Portland suburbs have restrictive housing policies, many smaller towns have no zoning.

“It’s going to depend on each community, how they’re evaluating and how it lines up with what rules they have already,” Townsend said.

The policies the bill implemented could be the most important affordable housing effort to come to Maine in a generation, Erik Jorgensen, senior director of government relations at MaineHousing, wrote in testimony.

The bill did receive backlash when it was being debated for new requirements on municipalities. It provided a single statewide standard for housing that didn’t consider local conditions, a selectperson in the Sagadahoc County town of Georgetown, testified. The Maine Municipal Association and conservative Maine Policy Institute opposed it.

Although Maine’s largest cities have had some of the most high-profile housing problems, there is evidence the crunch is reaching rural areas. Augusta Housing Authority Executive Director Amanda Olson testified that the more than a dozen rural towns it serves were reaching out for the first time asking for pathways to more affordable units.

While housing officials were largely united in their support, many acknowledge that there is a long road ahead in the policy area in Maine in the current environment. Problems won’t stop with this bill, although they could be lessened.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re woefully behind in this state for housing,” Townsend said. “As much as we do in this state for housing and building — MaineHousing does a lot — it’s not enough in this environment.”