ORONO — Legislators and affordable housing developers and advocates visited the University of Maine recently to see how the state’s flagship university is advancing housing and food security through research, innovation and partnerships.
The daylong summit showcasing solutions to one of the state’s grand challenges was organized by UMaine and the University of Maine System in partnership with the Legislature’s bipartisan Housing and Homelessness Caucus and MaineHousing.
It included a tour of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center, where, under the leadership of founding director Habib Dagher, research is underway to use Maine wood and the world’s largest 3D printer to help develop affordable housing. In the face of worker and supply shortages, the innovative process would reduce labor and materials needs and costs compared to standard construction, while improving housing sustainability and availability for those in need.
A new Green Engineering and Materials Factory of the Future is planned to further expand the Composites Center’s world-leading work in biobased materials development. Already, $35 million in federal funding for the project, which is expected to break ground in 2023, has been secured by the Maine Congressional Delegation led by Sen. Susan Collins, and the Mills Administration has additionally committed $15 million through the Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan.
Visitors also heard from researchers with the UMaine Center on Aging about the housing and health needs of older Mainers, and how technology, smart engineering and technical assistance from the university can help communities become more livable across the life span — including to allow Mainers to age in place.
“As the state’s R1 research university, UMaine has the responsibility and the resources to address Maine’s grand challenges, and few are more urgent than access to safe affordable housing for working families and older Mainers,” explained President Joan Ferrini-Mundy, who is also the UMS vice chancellor for research and innovation.
“We are grateful for the investment from state and federal policymakers and the public that allows us to innovate and partner to improve Maine’s future, as we showcased on Friday. From biobased affordable housing manufacturing to sustainable agriculture to rural health care delivery, our research and development signature strengths are in areas that most matter to Maine and can help make this the best state in which to live, work and learn,” she said.
Participating legislators came from eight counties. Statewide housing providers like Community Housing of Maine and local housing authorities in communities, including Bath and Biddeford, as well as nonprofit health and social service organizations like Amistad, Preble Street and Penobscot Community Health Care also attended.
“I believe Maine can lead the way in solving housing challenges with creative solutions. I wanted to bring the people who work on housing policy, homelessness and affordable housing to see how UMaine’s innovations can help our work. Together, we are developing the tools to grow the supply of housing to meet demand in Maine,” said Rep. Victoria Morales of South Portland, who chairs the Housing and Homelessness Caucus and helped organize the visit.
“To grow our economy and sustain our rural communities like those I represent in Washington and Hancock counties, Maine workers and families must have access to safe, affordable housing and food. It was wonderful to see firsthand how the University of Maine is developing solutions and providing direct assistance to address these important issues, and to share with university leaders the needs we are seeing in our districts for which they could provide help,” said Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais, who attended Friday.
MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan said innovations that make building construction more efficient will be an important component to closing the housing gap in Maine and the U.S.
“This homegrown technology coming from our own University of Maine is something we can all be really proud of,” Brennan said. “Not only does it put our state at the front of the pack in solving the housing crisis, it will also directly make housing more attainable and affordable for thousands of Maine families.”
The group also went to Rogers Farm in Old Town, a university research site where crops are grown as part of sustainable agriculture research, and UMaine Cooperative Extension has teaching projects, and donates to area food pantries and shelters through the Maine Harvest for Hunger program.
Run by UMaine Extension, Harvest for Hunger helps home, school and commercial growers contribute extra fresh fruit and vegetables to those in need in their communities, a process known as gleaning. Since the program’s inception in 2000, more than 3.3 million pounds of produce has been donated. More information is available at extension.umaine.edu/harvest-for-hunger. Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program that serves low-income Mainers was also overviewed during the visit.
The Black Bear Exchange, UMaine’s on-campus food and clothing pantry, also receives produce through the program and was highlighted Friday as part of a university-led discussion on its efforts to meet students’ basic needs and realize social mobility through affordable access to higher education.
Last month following supplemental appropriations from the Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills, UMS Trustees voted to hold in-state tuition flat for the seventh time in a decade to help Maine students and families recover from the economic impact of the pandemic and in the face of inflation. Additionally, since the start of the pandemic, Maine’s public universities have passed onto students more than $55 million in emergency aid provided through three federal relief packages.