The Cape Elizabeth Town Council is postponing action on controversial proposed amendments to town ordinances that would allow for larger affordable housing projects in town, with a public hearing and possible vote Sept. 13, according to Town Manager Matt Sturgis.

The council is also considering creating an ad hoc committee to further evaluate affordable housing needs in town and recommend further action to address those needs, Sturgis said.

Town officials have said Cape Elizabeth has needed more affordable housing for years, but the issue first gained widespread public attention in May with a proposal from Szanton company to build a 49-story apartment complex at the Ocean House Commons property on Ocean House Road, right next to Town Hall. Current town laws don’t allow a complex of that size and scope to be built, and town officials have been considering changes to local ordinances to allow it and similar projects.

That brought critics to a public town council workshop on the subject June 22.

Residents argued there were better ways to address affordable housing needs, and the town was moving too fast with the ordinance changes. While the June 22 meeting was the first time the public openly critiqued the proposed changes, Sturgis said, town officials and councilors had already been getting feedback from the public. He called the turnout at the meeting “about what I anticipated.”

“It was a full house,” Sturgis recalled.

The Szanton proposal calls for roughly 80% of the units to be rented at below-market rates to households earning less than 60% of the area’s annual median income, which in Cape Elizabeth is $123,116, according to the U.S. Census. The remaining 20% would be leased at market rates, projected to be about $1,495 per month.

If approved, the proposed 49-unit complex would be the first project in Cape Elizabeth of its size and type in 50 years. Officials have indicated in the past that they are aware of the need for more affordable housing in town. The town’s 2019 Comprehensive Plan recommends a housing diversity study to explore ways to “create more affordable opportunities for seniors to downsize, and for young adults and young families to move to Cape Elizabeth.”

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%.

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, but 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.

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