This rendering shows a 49-unit apartment building, center, that developers are proposing to build in the Cape Elizabeth town center, with Town Hall on the left. Archetype Architects

CAPE ELIZABETH — A proposal for a new 49-unit apartment building in the Cape Elizabeth Town Center could help address the lack of affordable housing in town.

Nathan Szanton, president of Portland-based Szanton Company, said the building his company has planned as part of the Ocean House Commons property is geared toward people who work in Cape Elizabeth but can’t afford to live in town. He includes EMTs, police officers, firefighters, retail clerks and school personnel among them.

“Many of the people who hold those jobs would be eligible for these apartments,” Szanton said.

According to Szanton, roughly 80% of the units would be rented at below-market rates to households earning less than 60% of the area’s annual median income. The remaining 20% would be leased at market rates, projected to be about $1,495 per month.

Szanton said the project is still in the early stages, requiring a zoning amendment from the planning board and town council. He said he expects the council to review the proposed amendment on April 30, after the planning board has had a chance to review it.

Officials first sounded the alarm on the housing trend in Cape Elizabeth’s latest comprehensive plan, which serves as a guide for future development, released in 2019.  Data the town and from the Maine State Housing Authority painted a picture of steadily increasing single-family home prices, with a nearly flat increase in the availability of what the Authority defines as “affordable” rental property.

The percentage of rental property townwide, according to the plan, did not change from 1990 t0 2010. While housing increased, the plan indicated the number of homes owned by residents, 2,796, made up 81% of the town’s total housing in 1990. In 2010, there were 3,094, or 77%. By contrast, rental properties totaled 461, or 13% in 1990. In 2010, 20 years later, that number had grown to 538, but the percentage remained the same, at 13%.

And, according to the plan, renters are struggling. The state housing authority’s website defines “affordable” rents as not more than 30% of a person’s annual income for rent, basic utility and energy costs. The plan notes that in 2015 “nearly half” of renters paid more than 30%. Current data on the authority’s website indicates that in 2020, 60% of households in Cape Elizabeth were unable to afford the town’s median monthly two-bedroom rent, which the authority lists as $2,311.

Town Planner Maureen O’Meara noted that the last time anyone built affordable housing in town was the early 1970s.

“The trend is in the wrong direction,” she said. “The shortage of affordable housing is becoming acute.”

The state describes an affordable home in similar terms; the homeowner should not pay more than 30% of their income on a mortgage, utilities, insurance and other monthly housing-related expenses.

By that definition, those who live in their own homes in Cape Elizabeth cannot necessarily afford them, either. A snapshot of data from 2013 in the plan didn’t show the median income for Cumberland County or Cape Elizabeth, but did show that, based on median income levels in Cumberland County that year, homeowners could only afford a home worth just over $200,000. That same year, however, the median home price in Cape Elizabeth was $375,000. That means, according to the report, 55% of Cape Elizabeth residents couldn’t afford the town’s median home price.

“Between 2003 and 2013, the median home price in Cape Elizabeth has been far out of reach for a household in Cumberland County earning the median income,” the plan’s authors wrote. “In fact, the only time during this timeframe when the median home price in Cape Elizabeth was affordable to the average Cape Elizabeth household was during the 2009 recession.”

Median home prices have not improved in Cape Elizabeth since 2013, either. According to the plan, other than a short dip from 2014 to 2015, prices have steadily climbed to nearly $500,000 in 2017. Comparing Cape Elizabeth to Cumberland County overall, along with South Portland, Portland, Scarborough, Cumberland, Yarmouth and Falmouth, only Falmouth exceeded $450,000, and still came in second to Cape Elizabeth.

O’Meara said the $500,000 figure is particularly telling in how difficult it is for young families with children to live in town.

“How many young people do you know who can afford that for a single-family home?” she said.

As to why the prices keep going up, O’Meara said Cape Elizabeth has consistently maintained high value over the years, with highly rated schools, public-accessible waterfronts, permanently protected open space – all only 6 miles away from Portland.

“It’s an extremely desirable community to live in,” she said.

O’Meara noted that she expects data from the 2020 Census, once released, will reinforce the trends as described in the plan.

“I don’t think there’s anything today that reverses the trends of these numbers,” she said.

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