A new 15-member commission will meet for the first time this week to begin studying how local land-use and zoning laws may prevent affordable housing development in Maine communities.

The Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions was created with the passage of a bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau to identify systemic issues holding Maine back from building and renovating more affordable housing. The commission’s first meeting will be held Thursday at the State House.

“Maine is facing an affordable housing crisis,” Fecteau said in a written statement announcing the commission members Tuesday. “Our work is about cutting the red tape standing in the way of building and revitalizing more affordable housing here in Maine. In too many municipalities, a web of various zoning and land use ordinances and state laws, some decades old, are preventing sensible affordable housing projects – big and small – from coming to fruition. We aren’t only thinking of erecting new housing; we hope to explore ways to incentivize the revitalization of buildings and housing stock that already exists across Maine.”

The commission includes state lawmakers and representatives of housing agencies, municipal associations and various industries related to housing.

The commission will be chaired by Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and Fecteau, a Democrat from Biddeford. Two of its members, Dana Totman and Jeff Levine, are well-known housing experts in southern Maine.

Totman is president and CEO of Portland-based Avesta Housing, the state’s largest nonprofit affordable housing developer.

Levine is a former Portland planning director who now teaches urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Levine recently compiled a report about barriers to affordable housing that said only about 5 percent of land in greater Portland is designated for apartments and condominiums, and that local zoning restrictions meant to preserve community character and combat sprawl can have the opposite effect.

In addition to Totman and Levine, commission members include Sen. Matthew Pouliot, R-Kennebec County; Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester; Dan Brennan of the Maine State Housing Authority; Hannah Pingree of the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future; Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association; Heather Spalding of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; construction industry representative John Napolitano; real estate broker Madeline Hill; affordable housing developer Erin Cooperrider; Cheryl Golak, an advocate for low- and middle-income Mainers, and Anthony Jackson, an advocate for civil rights and racial justice.

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

The report complied by Levine for 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.

During a public hearing earlier this year about the proposed commission, affordable housing advocates and other supporters urged state officials to examine whether barriers to such development can be removed. No one spoke against the bill.

“We’ve got to act now. Affordable housing is a major concern for our economy and workforce, not to mention for the dignity of older Mainers and the outlook for young families with kids,” Hickman said in a statement. “If young families can’t afford to live here, they won’t stay here. The commission will establish model policies with incentives for local jurisdictions to adopt on their own. It will not establish mandates that communities must enforce.”

The commission will meet at 1 p.m. Thursday at the State House. The public can provide comments in person or remotely by registering online here. The meeting will also be livestreamed on the Legislature’s YouTube channel. Meeting materials and other related documents will be posted on the commission’s webpage on the Legislature’s website.


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