NORTH WATERBORO — Maine is experiencing a decline in both its K-12 school and state university enrollments. Additionally, there are not enough young people to replace workers who are retiring or to fill the jobs required to service our aging population.
If we had more affordable housing and rental property, then more young workers and families would stay in and/or move to Maine.
In 1980, according to the U.S. Census, multi-family housing made up 26 percent of the total Maine housing stock. By 2010, this had dropped to 20 percent. Today, we have 40,000 fewer multi-family housing units than we did 30 years ago.
I have been a homebuilder since 1972, and in the late 1970s through the 1980s, the baby boomers played a significant role in advocating for their communities to adopt large-lot growth ordinances. In 1970, the typical minimum lot size was a half-acre; by the 1980s, many communities had minimum lot sizes of 2 to 5 acres.
These large lot sizes and growth ordinances make it economically impossible to build rental and affordable housing for young or retiring citizens. Who would consider building a four-unit apartment building on 8 to 20 acres of land or invest in a large-scale multi-family development when they don’t know how many building permits they would get each year?
Rental housing is the backbone of a vibrant economy and is needed if businesses are to attract young workers. It has taken 30-plus years for the real impacts of large-lot zoning and growth ordinances to be felt.
There cannot be a diverse housing stock serving all citizens, young and old, if it is designed to accommodate only new homes that are at least 2,500 square feet, have a two-car garage and are located on a 2- to 5-acre parcel of land.
Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, recently warned that labor costs will soar if state leaders fail to entice enough young people to Maine to replace everyone who’s retiring each year.
“We’ve got to get young people to move to Maine. We have to do more than just keep our kids here . … It’s not enough (to replace people who are retiring) because not enough of them were born here,” he said.
The baby boomers passed exclusionary zoning and growth ordinances to minimize the number of young families with children moving into their towns. These rules promoted the building of large homes that only people with median or higher incomes could afford.
The state of Maine failed to take aggressive action to encourage communities to adopt regulations that would promote rental and low-income housing. In recent years, the Maine State Housing Authority has been forced to spend its limited budget in our service centers updating existing buildings and/or taking advantage of high-density zoning of four or more units per acre.
The vast majority of rental housing in Maine is old and can be found in our service centers. After graduating from high school, young workers would go there to work in the mills and live in apartments while starting their families. Many would eventually move up the income scale and then buy their first house.
The state compounded the lack of affordable housing by creating the Land for Maine’s Future Board. Since 1987, $140 million in bonds have been issued to buy and preserve land under this program. This is a good idea, and I support it, but how does it help the economy?
The state should have also been issuing bonds to provide matching funds to communities that adopt land use regulations promoting rental and affordable housing. These funds could have been used to build roads and install utilities for areas that are zoned for high-density housing.
An impact fee schedule should be established to pay back the state and communities as the new housing is built. This would create a revolving fund to build more roads and infrastructure for additional affordable housing without having to issue more bonds.
For too long, Augusta has turned its back on this issue. It has to lead and provide incentives to promote rental and affordable housing. Making affordable housing readily available across Maine will address not only the challenge of our aging population, but also of our laggard economy.
Stephen M. Kasprzak is president of Kasprzak Homes, Inc., in North Waterboro.