In the News
March 25, 2016
By The Editorial Board
It’s not news that there’s a shortage of reasonably priced places to live in Portland. But the city can’t accommodate everyone in southern Maine who needs affordable housing. That’s why it’s good news that officials from five surrounding communities joined their Portland counterparts this week to share strategies to address the shortfall. This is a regional problem that demands a regional solution.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram’s “No Vacancy” series has documented the city’s housing crisis: low supply, high demand and rising costs. Similar concerns are being voiced in South Portland. And pressure on the housing market is likely to keep spreading geographically, given that the Portland metro area – which encompasses a region between Freeport and Kennebunk – dominates the state’s economy.
In fact, over the next three years, 6,000 new housing units (both for-sale and rental) will be needed in York, Cumberland and Sagadahoc counties, according to a recent federal analysis. So what are Portland’s suburbs doing to address this demand? They’re adjusting zoning – which can help cut development costs – and scouting out areas where multifamily development might be welcome. They’re also taking on a big challenge – local opposition – by setting high standards for development and offering something to critics in exchange, such as open space.
The officials at Wednesday’s forum – from Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Scarborough, South Portland and Westbrook – are on the right track, according to a housing expert.
Progress depends on “removing or alleviating local obstacles to more development. This means everything from more flexible zoning, more efficient entitlements and more outreach to neighborhoods that resist more development,” Stockton Williams of the Urban Land Institute told National Public Radio on Thursday.
There are good models locally for sustainable development – like Freeport, whose approach combines flexible regulations with a focus on cooperation with other organizations and development on infill lots and tax-acquired town property.
According to Freeport town planner Donna Larson, a 21-unit rental development in the former DeLorme Mapping building, which ordinarily would have required a 3.4-acre lot (“many times the existing property size”) was accomplished by “relaxing standards for existing building re-use, especially parking requirements.” The project has been a success, with a low vacancy rate and no parking issues, Larson told a 2012 Sustain Southern Maine forum.
Freeport took action after business leaders voiced their concerns that workers in the town’s thriving retail sector were having to commute from as far as Lewiston or Augusta because they couldn’t afford to live in town. In short, the town realized that affordable housing, a stable workforce and economic development are all connected. If other southern Maine communities want to rally support behind affordable housing, that’s something they should emphasize, too.
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