ROCKLAND, Maine — Shannon Denison lived for eight years in a St. George apartment with a mold problem that the landlord did not fix.
She lives with family now in South Thomaston with her husband and three daughters. They can’t afford escalating rent prices in Rockland and the surrounding area, so when she was referred to apply for a new Habitat for Humanity house, she went right for it.
“And then we can own our own house and not rent,” Denison said.
Her new home will be off Talbot Avenue within walking distance of downtown Rockland, in a neighborhood that is under construction. Denison will own one of three houses on the site, and additional single-bedroom cottages and two duplexes will be available for renters, totaling 13 units.
“Firefly Field” is roughly five years in the making. It comes after stiff opposition from neighbors and is coming to fruition during a housing affordability crisis hammering the area. The project is the first of its kind in Maine for the way it mixes homeownership with more traditional forms of affordable housing, but those behind it believe that could change with time.
“A project like this hasn’t been done in this exact manner and with these types of partners, but I think the hope is that it can be duplicated in different areas of the state and with different densities,” said Tia Anderson, the executive director of Midcoast Habitat for Humanity.
The two-phase project is expected to cost $2.3 million. The partnership between Anderson’s agency, the Knox County Homeless Coalition and MaineHousing came about in 2019 after local advocates saw news of a program in Detroit aimed at boosting homeownership.
They set out to craft their own version before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been marked by rising migration to Maine and higher costs. Home values in Rockland have risen 83 percent since the beginning of 2020, according to Zillow data. Only six cities and towns in Maine have seen higher increases, and the average home there is now worth $332,000.
Firefly Field got $500,000 in one-time money from MaineHousing to buy the site. The project was also supported by federal American Rescue Plan Act money. It was scaled back from 18 units in 2021 due to potential effects on wetlands at what was a 10-acre undeveloped lot. Neighbors placed that among many concerns with the development alongside runoff issues.
It was approved by city officials in May 2022 after 18 months. One of the biggest challenges the team faced was pushback from the neighbors, Anderson said, referring to some of them as NIMBYs, an acronym for “not in my backyard,” which is used to describe those who object to new developments where they live.
The project is still rankling some of those opponents, including Susan Beebe, an artist who lives about a mile from the project. She contends the developers stole her nickname for the field and thinks that the homes are still being built too close to the wetland and will harm wildlife.
“I wish the best to the people who are moving in,” Beebe said. “I’m angry, and I’ve lost all respect for Habitat for Humanity, because they have behaved duplicitously.”
But the project is going up now. The rental properties are expected to be done by late spring 2024. The houses, which are being built to suit their residents, should be done within a year. Since it relies on volunteer labor and special deals with contractors, it can build for less than $200 per square foot as opposed to around $300 for other builders, Anderson said.
Two of the three homes have buyers signed up, including Denison. They are priced at market value. Habitat for Humanity makes up for the gap between the market price and 30 percent of the residents’ income, the share spent on housing that is generally deemed affordable. The rental properties will be deeded to and managed by the homeless coalition.
Leaders of the project plan to debrief after it is done to see if the model can be used in other places. Many around the housing sector will be awaiting those answers.
“In my opinion, any kind of new housing in Maine is a good thing, whether it’s to rent or to own and at any income level, really,” said Mark Wiesendanger, the director of development at MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority. “More stock is huge, especially in a state with such old stock.”