With the proper subsidies, cheaper land and a more flexible and fair zoning ordinance, Portland’s housing problem can be greatly alleviated.

There are over 1,300 inclusionary-zoning ordinances in the country. One thing that comes up repeatedly in the analysis is that inclusionary zoning is just one piece of what is needed in order to create housing that is more moderately priced, whether for sale or rental. The results are mixed, but in the end, inclusionary zoning contributes a very small amount of new affordable housing. This model works only as long as there is a strong development environment.

There are numerous studies regarding the variety of incentives that have been tried as a way of implementing more affordable housing. The idea that new development should subsidize affordable housing is politically popular, but in Portland, adding fees or assessing penalties has not produced the desired results. Making development cost more does not make housing more affordable. The incentives are not substantial enough to entice developers to build affordable housing in Portland, and to continue operating in the same way is to continue to fail.

Massachusetts has a $100 million housing trust fund; a developer who wishes to build affordable housing can receive a $100,000 subsidy per unit in order to make it happen. We need a substantial housing trust fund, somewhere between $7 million and $10 million, to meet current and future housing needs.

Why do we think that only one industry should contribute to fixing this problem? Over 3,000 lawyers are working in Portland. A simple 50-cent housing fee on every hour billed could bring in $3 million a year. There are 25,000 taxable properties in Portland. We have no problem with a stormwater fee – why not an affordable-housing fee? Perhaps just $200 per year? There is another $5 million.

Even with the money, the No. 1 impediment to affordable housing is zoning. Most cities do not have the political will to make the necessary changes in all zones to allow for increased residential development. Portland’s restrictive zoning ordinance actually creates exclusionary zoning, which can be exemplified by the recent changes on Munjoy Hill.


We need more land and less expensive land. Continuing to try to shoehorn a few affordable units into projects on the peninsula is not working. The new comprehensive plan calls for creative and innovative uses of our land, and that can be accomplished only by changes that expand land use in every zone, especially off the peninsula.

Last October, WalletHub published a study about the best small cities in America. Over 1,200 cities with populations from 25,000 to 100,000 were graded using 40 different livability metrics. When it came to quality of life, we ranked 11th out of 1,200; when it came to housing, we were 1,101st out of 1,200 in affordability. I’m not sure it’s possible to market quality of life if you can’t afford to live here.

Take someone who makes $50,000 a year; to keep their housing costs at no more than 30 percent of their income, that translates into a $150,000 house. The median price of a house in Maine is $230,000, and in Portland it’s nearing $300,000. Buyers looking for new homes in more moderate price ranges will have to move further out from the city and will find it increasingly tougher as land, labor costs and government fees drive up builders’ costs.

There are over 1,600 city employees, many who make less than the area median income. Where do we want our teachers, firefighters and police officers to live? What about our hotel and restaurant workers? What do Biddeford, Westbrook and Scarborough know that we don’t? All three communities are developing mixed-use projects using land in new and creative ways. They are adding hundreds of units and making it possible for people to live near their work.

We as a city must be willing to cast aside old narratives and recognize that the need for housing has to supersede past ideas that have impeded our growth. All who live and work in Portland should share equally in the development of affordable housing.

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