A rendering shows four apartment buildings envisioned on Weston Avenue in Madison. Two of the buildings have received approval through MaineHousing's rural affordable rental housing program. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Hight and 55 Weston Ave LLC / Maine Public

The rain was just beginning to clear over central Maine as Sam Hight approached a grassy lot several blocks away from the Madison municipal office. He pointed to a white, two-story home with a hipped roof and large front porch just across the street on Weston Avenue, which will serve as a model for two apartment buildings he had planned for this location.

“The building is literally going to look like that, but just larger,” he said. “It’s going to look like it’s always been here.”

Hight sells cars for living at his family’s dealership in Skowhegan. He had never developed housing before, until Madison officials approached him about an empty, municipal-owned parcel. Two years later, Hight and his partners are about to break ground on the structures that will include 18 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, with rents ranging from about $950 to $1,250 a month, utilities included.

Their project was one of seven approved under MaineHousing’s new rural affordable rental housing program, which launched last year using $20 million in pandemic relief and other funds. Altogether, the program will subsidize the construction of about 115 new units from Bath to Presque Isle.

“It doesn’t come with all the hoops that low income housing tax programs come with. You don’t have to be very experienced in working with federal or state programs to make this work,” said Mark Wiesendanger, development director for MaineHousing.

Traditional low-income housing programs require developers to seek competitive tax credits, which are then sold to an investor in exchange for a portion of the funds needed to pay for construction. Those tax credits typically go to experienced developers looking to build larger buildings in more urban areas.

Under the rural rental program, Wiesendanger said MaineHousing offered up to $185,000 in forgivable loans for the construction of each new unit.

“The biggest problem that people are having right now in creating housing in general is the cost of construction is so astronomically high, we’ve never seen an atmosphere like this before,” Wiesendanger said. “So people can’t take out loans and construct properties and pay them back. So there needs to be another resource, and at $185,000 a unit, people say they can make it work.”

The program’s simplicity has drawn the interest of first-time developers across Maine, like Hight. But it’s also attracted others like Brandon Roberge, a custom home builder. His contracting company, Newman Homes, typically handles construction of single- or multi-family buildings. Now, he’s putting together the plans for an 18-unit project in Winslow that would be rented to households earning no more than 80 percent of the area’s median income.

“I was surprised to see where they had the bar,” Roberge said. “I think a lot of Maine families would be able to qualify to be able to rent these.”

Roberge said the idea of building homes for a population he doesn’t usually serve was a motivating factor for him. Plus, he’s receiving help in navigating affordable housing development for the first time.

“We’re seeing new developers come forward and say I have this experience in developing market rate housing, but I’m seeing the need in my community and all around me for affordable housing and I can put a project together too, but I need the help accessing the resources,” said Liza Fleming-Ives, executive director of the Genesis Community Fund.

The Genesis Fund was hired by MaineHousing to educate prospective developers about the rural rental program through workshops and one-on-one consultation on potential project plans. So far, it’s worked with nearly 60 developers in various stages of preparing plans for affordable housing projects.

About a dozen of those developers, including Roberge, have projects that are nearly ready to go should the rural rental program reopen. If approved, those projects could create more than 150 units.

Housing advocates are optimistic that the rural rental program will eventually be refunded, but the exact numbers are still up in the air. Gov. Janet Mills has proposed $35 million for the program over two years in her budget change package. Housing advocates have pushed state lawmakers this session to set aside funds annually.

“It really allows the people we’re funding to plan ahead,” Wiesendanger said. “When people plan ahead this process goes a lot smoother and costs less money. And the less a unit costs on a per-unit basis, it just means that we can create more units. We’re looking at a need for about 25,000 more units. Actually, I’ve heard recently that that number might be a lot higher than that.”

New research from the University of Southern Maine suggests the affordable housing gap may be more than 40,000 new units, because the state will need 20,000 new people to move to Maine to fill open job positions.

And in Madison and nearby Skowhegan, more jobs are on the way. Timber HP, a wood-fiber insulation company, has projected creating 120 jobs in Madison. New Balance is promising 200 more jobs in Skowhegan with a factory expansion.

“For a community if you add the two towns up to 12,000 people, that’s a big influx, and they need housing,” Hight said.

Residents initially worried that the modular homes in Hight’s project wouldn’t blend in with the others in Madison, he said. And some had the wrong impression that the apartments would become massive section 8 or public housing complexes.

But once the community realized that young families or older Mainers looking to downsize would be eligible to rent these apartments, Hight said the perception of the project changed.

“These are the people that you want to move into your area, that become invested in your area,” he said. “The younger people will move out of there and build. Their kids will go to the school district. It’s cliche, but this is a community here. We either let it die, or add some Miracle-Gro to it and let it flourish.”

Hight and his team envision a total of 36 units on the plot of land in Madison. He said they’re tying up loose ends with MaineHousing for the construction of the first 18 apartments now and expects to have tenants moving in late this year or early next.

But to build the next 18 units, they’ll have to apply again for financing from MaineHousing. And Hight acknowledges he’ll face heavy competition when — or if — additional funds become available.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.