When people talk about job-killing, growth-stifling government regulation, the bogeyman is usually some faceless bureaucrat in Washington or Augusta.

But in Maine, maybe we should be looking a little closer to home – even at the nice people at town hall.

A state commission that is looking at ways to address our affordable-housing crisis has identified ways that local land-use ordinances have failed to keep up with changing needs for new housing that is near jobs and is affordable to Maine workers.

These burdensome regulations force some Mainers to waste their time and energy on long commutes and make it harder for employers to recruit and retain employees.

They limit who can move to Maine (our only source of population growth in the last census), discouraging middle-class families from taking jobs here if they can choose to live in other parts of the country where incomes are higher or housing is less expensive.

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 of Biddeford, a city that has seen both the good and bad sides of economic revitalization.

Over the last decade, Biddeford has experienced what every former mill town dreams of in the form of new businesses and private investment. But along with the jobs, restaurants and busy street life came increased demand for housing, driving prices out of reach for many who want to live there.

It would be a great injustice, Fecteau said, if the rebirth of the city doesn’t include the longtime residents who stuck with it during the bad times.

The commission is finalizing its report to the Legislature next month. Its recommendations go after single-family zoning requirements and are likely to include:

• Permitting the addition of accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “in-law apartments,” for most single-family homes.

• Permitting multi-unit buildings in all zones now limited to single-family houses.

• Requiring municipalities to identify areas for denser development.

Single-family zoning was not common in Maine until the period following World War II, when many cities and towns adopted ordinances to control growth. The downtowns that draw tourists and the walkable mixed-use urban neighborhoods where the real estate market now is the hottest were laid out in the years before zoning and could not be built today.

Over the years, the reliance on single-family zoning has constricted where new housing can be built, and that imposes limits on other parts of the economy.

People can’t move to where the jobs are if there is no place for them to live. A chronic labor shortage will prevent new businesses from opening and existing businesses from expanding.

And Maine’s existing housing stock, some of the oldest in the nation, was not built for modern conditions. Families are smaller today than they were before 1950, when a third of the houses in Maine were built. Multi-unit housing is more affordable and a better fit for many of today’s needs.

What stands in the way of this needed development is Maine’s tradition of local control. High housing costs are not a problem for people who already own homes, and local governments have to answer only to the people who live there, not the ones who can’t afford to. Municipal governments can decide that affordability is someone else’s problem.

That’s why the state should step in and set boundaries for what can be done by municipal zoning.

Just as every municipality with waterfront has to pass a shoreland zoning ordinance, every city and town should also be required to plan for housing affordability.

Changing these burdensome regulations won’t eliminate Maine’s housing problems, but it would give breathing room to a lot of Maine workers, their families and employers. That’s the direction in which the Legislature should be going.


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