A measure that calls for creating a committee to study how local land-use and zoning laws affect affordable housing development got a positive reception from a legislative panel Monday.

L.D. 609, sponsored by Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, would examine whether local rules make it difficult for developers to build affordable apartments in Maine.

Affordable housing advocates and other supporters at a public hearing Monday urged state officials to examine whether barriers to such development can be removed. No one spoke against the proposal.

Neighborhoods with a mix of single family homes and apartments were common before World War II, said Tex Hauser, a member of the Maine Association of Planners Legislative Policy Committee. After the war, however, many cities and towns tightened rules to allow only single-family homes in some neighborhoods. In his city of South Portland, Hauser said, that meant fewer apartments, more single-family homes and greater sprawl.

The housing crunch in some areas appears to have worsened during the pandemic, he said. For instance, South Portland schools recently reported that more than 100 students lacked secure housing, more than double the typical number the district sees.

“The pandemic has made the housing problem much more pressing,” Hauser said.

Fecteau said the bill is designed to deal with what he called a crisis in affordable housing.

“This bill is about cutting any red tape standing in the way of building affordable housing here in Maine,” he said.

But, Fecteau added, he doesn’t want to force towns and cities to change their development rules. Instead, he said, he hopes the study committee can come up with a model housing plan and give towns and cities incentives to adopt it.

Apartments in Maine are becoming increasingly expensive, with one in five tenants paying more than half of their income for rent, the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition said. A Mainer earning minimum wage can’t afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in any of the state’s 16 counties, the group said.

A recent report by the Greater Portland Council of Governments says land use policies in Portland and surrounding communities are largely to blame for the housing crunch, with only five percent of the land in those communities designated for apartments and condominiums. Those policies are designed to protect the small town character of those communities, but thoughtful development of multi-family housing could preserve that character while lowering municipal infrastructure costs, the report said.

Speakers at Monday’s hearing said southern Maine has a few examples of such development. In Gorham, for instance, a mixed-use development provides space for restaurants and stores, offices and apartments and provides efficient spaces where some people work in the building where they live. Those residents have easy access to a grocery store and public transit.

But, developers said, those kinds of projects often require changes to zoning laws that currently focus on clearly delineating between residential and business areas. Shepherding mixed-use projects through local zoning boards and town councils can be time-consuming and expensive.

The committee established by Fecteau’s bill would try to highlight those issues and suggest ways to make the process easier and more streamlined, he said.

The Labor and Housing Committee, which held Monday’s public hearing, will meet again at the end of the week to iron out who would serve on the committee and establish a timeline for its work. The full House and Senate would have to approve the bill first.

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