Former Gov. Paul LePage’s main idea for solving one of Maine’s biggest problems has centered on tackling a different thorny political issue.
The Republican running against Gov. Janet Mills has said he wants to increase the housing supply by getting school districts to consolidate and use old buildings for homes, harkening back to a project at a former Waterville school that began when he was mayor before he was elected to his first of two terms as governor in 2010.
“I could name you dozens of schools that could be converted into affordable housing,” he said at a debate last week with the Democratic governor and independent hopeful Sam Hunkler. “And we did it in Waterville, and it could be done all over the state.”
The idea has rolled out in vintage LePage fashion: with almost no detail and in dribs and drabs at public events. It comes amid a yearslong dispute with Mills on key housing policies and while Maine grapples with a crippling housing shortage.
School consolidation has also been one the state’s trickiest policy areas. Former Gov. John Baldacci’s 2007 consolidation law was received poorly in many cities and towns that later withdrew from bigger districts. LePage’s administration put forward incentive programs aimed at consolidation, and he often gives examples of how cities and schools should merge services.
But the developer of the Gilman Street School project in Waterville said that while Maine should convert as many old schools as possible to housing, they should not be emptied out to do so. It could entangle developments that can already be politically fraught with other thorny education issues, said Kevin Bunker of Portland-based Developers Collaborative.
“It doesn’t make a lick of sense, frankly,” Bunker said of LePage’s idea.
At a Bangor appearance with former Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District, LePage said “money talks” when asked how he would get districts to buy in. He insinuated that participating districts would get more aid, saying “their lives would be less expensive” if they did so.
“If they don’t, then it’s local choice,” he said. “I’m not going to force anybody to do anything.”
Asked how he would fund the initiative, LePage referred to the billions in COVID-19 aid that Maine has gotten from the federal government, saying the state was “flush” with money from “Uncle Joe” — or President Joe Biden. His campaign did not answer questions on how he would fund the retrofitting of school buildings.
Mills began her tenure by reversing LePage on a key policy item, signing off on a $15 million senior housing bond that her predecessor stalled since it was approved by voters in 2015. The bond has funded nearly 200 housing units, and she often refers to it on the campaign trail.
But her tenure has also been marked by a stark housing affordability crisis. Single-family home prices in Maine rose by more than 11 percent this August compared with the same month in 2021, according to Redfin data. It is due in part to increased migration and underbuilding. A recent report said Maine was short 9,000 housing units in 2019, nearly all around Portland.
The Democratic-led Legislature and Mills passed a housing overhaul this year that takes on single-family zoning by allowing two units on lots previously zoned for one, requires cities and towns to allow in-law apartments and offers state assistance to liberalize zoning codes.
At an economic debate with Mills last week, LePage echoed municipal concerns with that law by saying it will “go into communities and destroy them.” In the same breath, he said it was a “good start” in addressing housing. Mills’ campaign touted her actions and hit LePage’s idea.
“It’s clear that Paul LePage has no real plan to tackle Maine’s housing shortage and is totally unprepared to solve this problem in a serious and timely way,” said Scott Ogden, a Mills spokesperson.
Many schools in Maine have been redeveloped into housing. Mills signed the housing bill at the Hodgkins School Apartments in Augusta, a 47-unit complex in a mid-century middle school, a half-mile from the Cony Flatiron senior complex in the city’s historic high school building. But those projects came after the schools emptied out. Hodgkins was vacant for five years until the city turned it over to the local housing authority for redevelopment.
Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, said she could not offer many thoughts on LePage’s vague plan, but she said anything developed without local support “will gain little traction.” Bunker said it is resources, not sites, in the way of affordable housing.
Evan Richert, the former head of Maine’s now-defunct State Planning Office, said lawmakers should shift their attention to expanding incentives under an existing law allowing cities and towns to create affordable housing districts with tax benefits. That would increase certainty for local governments and developers, he said.
“I’ve always been in favor of higher density in designated areas and I think a number of communities have embraced that and done it,” he said.
BDN writer Sawyer Loftus contributed to this report.