Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque remembers when he was a kid, riding around with his single mom, imagining what it would be like to live in one of the city’s nicer homes.

Eight years ago, he bought one of their favorites, a stately white colonial perched on a hillside zoned for agriculture and resource protection. Built in 1941, it’s a striking solitary landmark near the Lost Valley Ski Area. It’s also a far cry from the trailer where he grew up.

The zoning saves him about $600 a year in property taxes, he says, but it prevents people from building houses nearby unless they earn at least 30 percent of their income from agriculture. It angers the business consultant and landlord that city policies have perpetuated restrictions on land ownership and housing development that he now sees as exclusionary and detrimental to many residents.

Levesque, a self-described “I bleed red” Republican, is calling out zoning regulations that he says are contributing to a long-simmering housing crisis – one that has grown more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic and spread to every region in Maine. He’s pushing for zoning reform as a way to fight “socioeconomic discrimination” and suburban sprawl, embrace sustainable development and “good growth,” and promote the “progression of Auburn as a city.”

Levesque’s efforts have placed him in the company of Maine Democrats and housing advocates, who have been working for nearly a decade to address a shortage of affordable housing across the state – now estimated to be nearing 25,000 units – and who have made significant progress since Gov. Janet Mills took office in 2019. His willingness to tackle the issue reflects increasing support among Maine Republicans to fix a problem that housing advocates say was neglected and made worse under Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Levesque said. “It’s about supply and demand. It’s about embracing the possibility of good growth. We need the market to provide housing of all kinds that is attainable by people regardless of their income or background.”


Levesque is one voice in an expanding chorus as homes across Maine grow increasingly scarce and more costly to rent or buy. In December, the median single-family home sale price in Maine was $299,000 – up 38 percent from the median price of $216,900 in February 2020, based on data from Maine Listings, a subsidiary of the Maine Association of Realtors. One in five renters pays more than half their income toward housing costs, far exceeding the standard 30 percent considered affordable by housing advocates.

The final report from the bipartisan Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine includes recommendations to eliminate single-family zones statewide, making way for up to four units on all residential lots and allowing accessory dwelling units, including in-law apartments, by right.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, stands near a newly built elevator shaft at the future site of Milliken Heights, a 55-unit mixed-income senior housing project in Old Orchard Beach. He called Maine’s housing crisis “a defining issue of our time.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Chaired by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, and Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, the commission also calls for prohibiting municipal growth caps on new housing; providing state-funded technical assistance and other financial incentives; and allowing 2.5 times more density for low- and middle-income housing projects.

Fecteau sponsored the bill last year that created the commission to study how zoning and land use restrictions affect housing construction and availability. He will soon propose legislation based on the recommendations of the 15-member panel.

In 2019, Fecteau sponsored legislation that won broad bipartisan support for a first-time, state-level tax credit program to create affordable workforce and senior housing. Last year, the program helped to leverage $74 million in federal and state funding to build or renovate 430 affordable housing units.

Fecteau sees the housing crisis as “a defining issue of our time,” preventing communities and families from prospering and limiting the ability of businesses to attract and retain workers.


It frustrates him that some people profess their support for affordable housing, then oppose it when a project is proposed where they live. Last November, as The Szanton Co. of Portland broke ground on a 55-unit, mixed-income senior housing project in Old Orchard Beach, strong community opposition led the developer to drop a proposal to build a 46-unit affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth.

“Mayor Levesque and I agree – we need housing of all kinds,” Fecteau said. “No one is immune to the (impacts) of the current housing crisis. … It requires all of us to step up to the plate.”


Jessica Poto knows how tough Maine’s housing market is. For the last two years, she and her boyfriend rented a single-family home on a wooded lot in Auburn. Last April, they started looking for another place to live when the house was put up for sale. They’re both gainfully employed and could afford as much as $1,500 per month for rent, but like many people, their credit scores weren’t perfect.

They checked out more than 500 rentals, but when the sale to an out-of-state buyer closed in October, they still hadn’t found a suitable and affordable home for them and their two children. Only after WGME-TV featured their predicament on the evening news in December were they contacted by a landlord willing to rent to them. It’s a mobile home in Turner with three bedrooms and a big yard. The rent is $950 per month. They moved in last month.

“We are very excited for a fresh start,” Poto said. “The oldest (child) has to switch schools and day care, but we have been pumping him up for this for about eight months now, so he’s ready and very excited.”


Poto, who works in early childhood education, agrees that zoning laws need to change to allow more housing to be built. She’s frustrated that so many people moved to Maine during the pandemic, making housing more scarce and driving up costs.

“There also needs to be a way to stop landlords from charging exorbitant amounts of money for rent,” Poto said.

Levesque, Auburn’s mayor, said he was disappointed to learn Poto had to leave Auburn to find housing.

“We don’t want to lose residents, but people gotta live,” he said.

Evan Cooke and Meaghan Mulkern outside of the duplex they rent in South Portland on Thursday. The couple has been house hunting and recently put in offers $50,000 and $75,000 over asking, to no avail. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Evan Cooke and Meaghan Mulkern are still on the hunt for a home. They moved to South Portland about a year and a half ago, fleeing New York City when the pandemic struck. Both work from home; she’s a human resources recruiter and he’s in technology sales. They were ready to buy a house in southern Maine when they decided to move here, but they settled for an apartment when they found meager offerings.

They stepped up their search about six months ago, touring nearly 100 single-family homes online, from Biddeford to Westbrook to Yarmouth. They recently bid on two modest homes in South Portland that would have required significant renovations – $50,000 over the $300,000 asking price for a three-bedroom and $75,000 over the $335,000 asking price for a four-bedroom. Each time, their offer was one of about 70 and the house sold in a few days.


“It’s causing a lot of stress on our relationship because of the amount of money we have to put down over asking,” Mulkern said. “We have a roof over our heads, but we want to stop shelling out money for rent that doesn’t give us any return on our investment. Right now, there are five houses on the market (in Greater Portland) that are even within our budget. It’s very defeating.”


Dan Brennan, director of MaineHousing, has never seen a tighter housing market in nearly 30 years with the agency.

“Attaining and holding onto affordable housing has never been more challenging,” Brennan said.

At the same time, the collective will to fix the problem has grown stronger since 2015, when LePage fought a $65 million senior housing bond proposal from Democrats that was intended to create 1,000 housing units and had won bipartisan support. LePage whittled it down to $15 million, then refused to release the bonds after nearly 70 percent of voters approved the borrowing.

Releasing those senior housing bonds was one of the first things Mills did when she became governor in 2019. It set a tone for action on housing that she has sustained, dedicating $50 million in federal pandemic aid to affordable housing initiatives as part of her Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan.


Last summer, Mills named Greg Payne to be her senior adviser on housing policy, plucking him from his longtime roles as an affordable housing developer with Avesta Housing and director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

“It’s night and day,” Payne said of current State House attitudes on housing. “This governor just has a fundamentally different view of how important she thinks housing is.”

With additional funding and support, MaineHousing financed and helped to develop a record 524 new rental units in 2021 – 454 subsidized and 70 market-rate units. More than 1,707 new units are in the pipeline this year, although worker shortages and supply chain issues may slow progress.

Payne believes the combination of the pandemic-driven real estate boom and available federal recovery funding may finally generate the bipartisan agreement necessary to address the housing shortage.

“I think you’re going to see support from people you wouldn’t have seen in the past because it’s gotten so bad,” Payne said. “There seem to be many folks in the Legislature who seem to be committed to making progress on this. That is the most hopeful thing about all of this as we find ourselves mired in this crisis.”



Businesses leaders across Maine say the housing crunch is making it more difficult than ever to hire and retain workers.

“We’re seeing more candidates withdraw or decline positions because they’re having difficulty securing housing, either renting or buying,” said Helene Kennedy, vice president of recruitment at MaineHealth, a statewide network of medical practices and hospitals that includes Maine Medical Center in Portland.

The situation is exacerbated by a worker shortage amid a pandemic that affects nearly every aspect of health care, leaving MaineHealth with 10 percent of its 22,000 positions consistently unfilled. The problem is most acute in coastal communities, Kennedy said, especially in the Portland area, where a typical two-bedroom apartment rents for about $2,000 per month.

West Shore Landing, a 36-unit apartment complex built on the banks of the Androscoggin River in Auburn. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Communities that are making inroads against the crisis are finding ways to create places where people can meet all their needs close to home. It’s happening in Scarborough, where a 524-acre horse racing facility is being developed into various types of housing, business and recreational properties, and in Biddeford, where brick mill buildings have been converted into apartment complexes and business incubators.

Westbrook streamlined its development process so it was able to approve construction of 133 new dwelling units in 2021, with an additional 476 currently under review. The city expanded the downtown overlay district, where housing density can be greater, building height and parking requirements are negotiable, first-floor commercial uses are required and there is no minimum lot size.

“We’re putting units where people want to live, work and play,” said Westbrook Mayor Mike Foley, a Democrat.



Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, a member of the legislative commission, said she’s “very optimistic” that fellow Republicans will embrace many of its recommendations, even though some may view mandated zoning reform as an affront to home rule.

Arata likes the idea that homeowners of modest means could make a dent in the housing crisis and increase their incomes by adding a few apartments that meet building and safety codes. She also thinks it’s ridiculous that some homeowners have to fight to add living space for family members.

“I really support property rights, and zoning is so restrictive, it’s taken away some of those rights,” Arata said. “Home rule is important to many Republicans, but most Republicans support property rights even more. When they look at it from that perspective, I think they will support the recommendations.”

Having the state determine local zoning rules is certain to be a hard sell.

The 10-member executive committee of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, which represents 25 communities in Cumberland County, reviewed the zoning recommendations last month and called for legislation that sets goals rather than mandates.


“The committee understands there is an affordable housing crisis and that we need to work together to solve it,” said Sandy Carder, a Gray town councilor who heads GPCOG’s executive committee. “But a one-size-fits-all mandate isn’t the best approach, especially in a state as diverse as Portland and Presque Isle.”

Committee members are concerned that well-intentioned housing mandates may prevent municipalities from meeting other goals and solving other problems. Gray recently completed a comprehensive plan that identifies specific growth areas where increased housing density wouldn’t stress limited town infrastructure or threaten endangered lakes and aquifers, Carder said. And South Portland is already investigating how it can increase accessory dwelling units without simply increasing short-term rentals.

“Many of us have worked very hard locally to protect housing and open space,” said Kate Lewis, a South Portland city councilor who sits on GPCOG’s executive committee. “A statewide mandate is very difficult to impose on very diverse communities.”

Fecteau said the commission’s recommendations strike a balance between state and municipal governance.

“As state lawmakers, we have a duty to tackle the housing shortage,” Fecteau said. “We can’t do that by shirking our duty to look at the red tape that prevents housing from being built or renovated.”



Levesque, Auburn’s mayor, says his city has adopted or plans to implement most of the legislative commission’s recommendations, including allowing secondary dwelling units in most zones.

He supports the recommendation to ban growth caps and points to a bill submitted by Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, that would do away with the income requirement to build houses in the agricultural zone, which covers half the city. He says it effectively nixes housing development on large swaths of land and keeps homeownership out of reach for many lower- and moderate-income folks.

“It’s borderline criminal,” Levesque says. “Communities around the state have used zoning to perpetuate policies that prevent neighbors from having neighbors and prevent people from maximizing the value of their land.”

Two years ago, Levesque decided to push for construction of 2,000 additional market-rate homes by 2025. He says the city is well on its way, with 178 new apartments and single-family homes built or under construction by private developers; 176 units approved for construction; and 350 units under review.

Carpenter Jason Thompson cuts trim while working at the West Shore Landing, a 36-unit apartment complex built on the banks of the Androscoggin River in Auburn. The complex is expected to be fully occupied by mid-February. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In the completed category is West Shore Landing, a 36-unit apartment complex built on the banks of the Androscoggin River by real estate broker and developer Tim Millett and his family. Rent is $1,325 for one bedroom and $1,550 for two bedrooms. The complex will be fully occupied by mid-February.

“I’m sure there will be another project on the horizon,” Millett said. “There’s a lot of demand and opportunity.”


Auburn introduced a program last month to use $1 million in federal pandemic aid to offer grants up to $10,000 per unit to people who build owner-occupied duplexes and three-unit buildings; and grants up to $20,000 per unit to municipal and school employees who build single-family homes, owner-occupied duplexes or three-unit homes.

Levesque hopes the grants will encourage people to move to Auburn and stay there. He expects zoning changes will increase in-fill development downtown, including on city-owned lots that are for sale.

He says he supports government programs that counter imbalances in the real estate market, especially those created by zoning regulations that curtail property rights.

“This is a problem of our own doing,” he says. “We need to look deep to fix it.”

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