I’m from away. I was born in New York City and raised just up the Hudson River in Yonkers.

Even though I moved to Portland so long ago that I can remember when Munjoy Hill was where you would go to find a cheap apartment, I’ll never qualify as a “real Mainer.”

I’m in good company. My wife is from away. So are my kids, even though they were born here (it was explained to me that “just ’cause a cat has her kittens in the oven don’t make ’em muffins”). Some famous “Mainers” like E.B. White are also from away.

The distinction is clear. On one hand, you have families that have lived in Maine long enough to produce genuine muffin-children, and then you have the other 7.3 billion inhabitants of Earth.

Mostly it’s said as a joke, and that’s how I take it, but it can get on people’s nerves, as a recent social media explosion made clear. Business consultant Jess Knox (who, for the record, was born in Waterville) objected to this newspaper’s use of the term “from away” in our ongoing series on the Portland housing crisis (“Welcome to Portland – No Vacancy”) calling the appellation a “dumb … historical artifact” that should be retired.

“For those of us who are trying to build communities that bring people together – the numerous appearances of the phrase ‘from away’ in the Portland Press Herald today makes it a lot harder to build acceptance of those who might be new to the area,” Knox wrote. “I mean – we are all from away except for the Native American communities.”

Dozens of people chimed in, mostly in agreement. I expect that some of them were from you-know-where.

“People don’t realize how difficult it is to be part of a community when you are constantly being reminded that you don’t belong,” Knox said in a phone call Tuesday. “This is the only place I know of where you have to be credentialed to participate.”

Knox may be on to something, especially when we are talking about the housing shortage in Portland. We are too quick to blame the problem on newcomers.

People want to move here. That’s generally thought of as good thing, but in Portland it’s seen as a problem.

The real problem, though, is not too many people but a lack of housing. We know that because we know that there were almost 10,000 more people living in Portland in 1960 than there are today, and the land hasn’t shrunk, so there’s enough room. The question should be how to make sure that everyone who wants to live here can find a place to live, not where they were born.

When I arrived in the late 1980s, it was easy to find an affordable apartment in Portland because so many middle-class people had moved away to live in the suburbs in the previous decades. Now people have to pay what look like outrageous rents for the very same apartments. What changed?

We usually blame gentrification – the phenomenon of wealthier people moving into a low-income neighborhood and displacing the previous neighbors – but that puts the focus in the wrong place.

It’s not the people from away who are driving up the rents, it’s the shortage of places to live. Retirees, young adults and low-income families are now competing for the same kind of in-town housing in walkable neighborhoods, but they live in much smaller households than were common in 1960. That creates competition, which always drives prices up.

Signs for new luxury condominiums are popping up all over the Portland peninsula, and they are often blamed for the rent crisis. But new construction on open land doesn’t displace anyone, even if it is expensive.

What we are not seeing is the construction of new housing that is affordable to people who earn a middle income. I don’t see how discouraging high-end investment would change that. You can’t improve Portland by turning it into a place where no one would want to move. These problems are not unique to Portland.

Lots of small cities are experiencing housing shortages, not just Portland. Retirees and young people are moving back to cities all over the country, not just Portland.

Every time we wind up on one of this magazine best-of lists, there are a dozen other cities with the same honor.

This matters because we are in a national competition for talent. As Maine’s population ages, we can’t grow without attracting new residents, including those who will start businesses and create jobs. And the alternative to growth and investment is not standing still, it’s decay.

Those of us who live here now have a choice: We can welcome these people, or remind them that they’re “from away.”


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