Biddeford is looking to expand affordable housing, where the vacancy rate is just 2 percent, as well as adding more single family homes, and increasing homeownership. Tammy Wells Photo

BIDDEFORD — The City Council wants to increase home ownership in Biddeford. They want to increase the number of available “next” homes for people looking for larger living quarters, and create 200 homes for first-time buyers, with the latter affordable to households earning 80 to 120 percent of Biddeford’s median income of $50,327, by 2026.

Councilors say they want to increase home ownership from 48 percent to 51 percent by Jan. 1, 2026.

In addition, the council wants to create or preserve 90 affordable rental units a year over five years, targeted to serve those making 40 to 80 percent of median income, with at least half of the residences created through new construction. And they want to rehab 65 existing units a year for the next three years, making them lead-free.

The City Council adopted the goals at a recent meeting. In December, the council plans to hold a workshop to examine how it can better work to achieve them.

Council members have been talking about housing in general and affordable housing in particular for a while. They want the community to have offerings for first-time homebuyers as well as those moving to accommodate a growing family. Often now, councilors said, families look outside the city to purchase a home because there isn’t enough stock, and not enough at affordable prices, in Biddeford.

The value of Biddeford’s rental housing stock rose from $51,000 per unit to $94,518 per unit from 2013 to 2017, the city’s research shows. Tammy Wells Photo

Research on rental housing conducted by city staff shows that from 2013 to 2017, the selling price for apartment buildings, based on a per unit price, remained relatively flat at around $51,000 per unit. Beginning in 2018, said City Manager James Bennett in a memo to the council, the selling prices — and the corresponding rents charged — increased. To date, in 2020, the average selling price is now $94,518 per unit. He said single-family dwelling costs have increased as well.

Market rates have increased faster than the ability to pay, based on Biddeford’s $50,127 median income, and rents have increased more since the Maine Energy Recovery Company incinerator closed in 2012, according to city documents. City staff report that a market rate apartment that rented at $863 a month in December 2012 is renting at $1,211 a month in 2020. An apartment deemed affordable at around $730 a month in December 2012 was at $950 this year.

Some of the premiere downtown rents exceed $2,000 a month, Bennett told the council.

According to Maine Housing, 40 percent of renter households pay 35 percent or more of their income in rent, five percent more than the generally accepted 30 percent figure, and city documents show that Biddeford Housing Authority pegs vacancy rates for affordable units at just 2 percent.

When and how to achieve housing goals were also discussed.

“Is there any kind of line in the sand when pieces of this are brought back to us,” asked Councilor Michael Ready. “This can’t be just something that gets passed and 10 years from now (someone) says ‘gee, didn’t we have something like that.'”

Bennett told the council he would brainstorm with Biddeford Housing Authority to learn what they were doing and how the city and BHA might work together. Also, he said, the city could develops goals to provide clarity to developers considering investments in the city.

Councilor Stephen St. Cyr noted there is more home ownership in Saco and Sanford — both more than 60 percent — than in Biddeford. He said Biddeford’s goal of 51 percent isn’t adequate.

There was discussion about encouraging developers to turn some conversions into condominiums or other ownership opportunities rather than just high-end apartments.

Councilor Doris Ortiz urged caution, saying condominiums often do not stay that way.

“They’ll turn into Airbnbs, or apartments,” she said. Harking to the homeownership figures, she said Biddeford is an urban city, Saco and Sanford are not.

“We have to work with the bones we have,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “The mills are turning into apartments. Apartments are not a bad thing; I think setting goals like we have, is telling our residents we have concerns and we have to adapt the way we’ve done things. City officials have never had to deal with this in the past.”

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