Tammy and Dan White’s house hunt began when his 79-year-old mother started forgetting things.

When doctors diagnosed it as early stage dementia, the Wells couple knew she couldn’t continue to live alone an hour’s drive away. She needed to be closer so they could keep an eye on her condition and provide her with the support she would need in the days ahead.

That is when Maine’s long simmering housing crisis hit home for them: they couldn’t find anything they could afford. So instead, they added on to their own house, building what is called an accessory dwelling unit so his mother could age in place, just a few steps away.

“I like being close, knowing they’re there, but I still want my own space,” said Elaine White, standing in a renovated dining room that now doubles as a shared common space linking Elaine’s unit to the larger house. “This is where I’m going to put my piano.”

The six-month, $165,000 addition cost about half as much as even the smallest single-family house in southern Maine. After all, the addition requires no new land and makes use of existing utilities. It also will save them money by delaying nursing care for as long as possible.

The Whites were able to build an accessory dwelling unit in Wells, but not every Maine town allows it. That would change, however, under a new housing reform bill introduced this week in the Legislature that would overhaul, and at times overrule, Maine’s municipal housing regulations.


The bill, introduced by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, would:

• Prohibit local growth caps

• Require towns to allow low-density affordable housing

• Allow construction of four-unit dwellings in any residential zone

• Allow construction of accessory dwelling units

• Require towns to establish a higher-density multifamily housing zone


• Establish a state board to review local housing permit decisions

The bill, L.D. 2003, would create a $1.3 million state grant program for towns to develop land-use rules that would increase housing opportunities. Towns willing to study how their land-use rules impact housing availability could get up to $75,000 in grants over three years.

House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, center, promotes his affordable housing legislation during a tour of an accessory dwelling unit in Brunswick on Wednesday with Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, left, and Dan Brennan, director of the Maine State Housing Authority. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The public can weigh in on the bill during a Labor and Housing Committee hearing at 10 a.m. Monday.

“We’re in an affordable housing crisis,” Fecteau said Tuesday while touring Elaine White’s home. “There is not a single county in Maine where someone earning minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s a statewide problem for our young families, our workforce and our seniors.”

At the conclusion of a three-town tour of affordable housing units, Fecteau gathered a group of housing advocates, builders, lawmakers, tenants and landlords in front of a Brunswick accessory dwelling to underscore the need for reform.



The bill is likely to face opposition from some municipalities that see it as a threat to local control – North Yarmouth residents will vote this month on a proposal to cap the number of village building permits – but some cities and towns already have started to adopt local versions of the bill.

Four years ago, Auburn realized it was facing a looming housing crisis driven in large part by outdated, confusing and anti-growth zoning that lacked a basic understanding of supply and demand and the impact of increased housing costs, Mayor Jason Levesque said.

The code was “at best exclusionary and at its worst discriminatory,” Levesque told the group. The city decided to overhaul its zoning and ordinances to remove local barriers that were preventing people from obtaining affordable housing, he said. “We decided to redefine our city,” he said.

Auburn eliminated single-family exclusionary zoning laws that had been in place since 1933, adopted the most flexible accessory dwelling unit rules in Maine, eliminated the parking space minimum from residential zoning, and slashed permitting fees by 40 percent, Levesque said.

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque, left, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, center, talk to Chris Lee of Backyard ADUs on Wednesday while touring a 780-square-foot, two-bedroom unit in Brunswick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


The plan is working, he said. In the majority of the city, housing density has increased from four to 16 residential units per acre. Over the last two years, more than 800 new housing units have been built, approved or are in the planning phase, Levesque said.


“We’ve seen tremendous growth in Auburn,” Levesque said, noting that his city already has adopted most of L.D. 2003’s municipal mandates. “I urge my fellow municipal leaders to advocate for zoning and ordinance changes that eliminate barriers to growth. Embrace change.”

The policy board of the Maine Municipal Association has voted to oppose the bill because of the many state mandates written into it, said Kate Dufour, a lobbyist who served with Fecteau on the housing commission that recommended the guts of what is in the proposed legislation.

Maine municipalities understand the urgent need for more affordable housing in Maine, but it should be up to the towns to decide which one of the many tools included in the bill would work best in their communities, Dufour said. “For some, one tool will do the job,” she said.

The policy board would like to see lawmakers adopt the parts of the bill that would help towns study their land use regulations and ordinances to see how best to increase local housing before moving ahead with the mandate part, Dufour said.

“I know time is getting shorter and shorter on this issue, but there is room here for compromise,” Dufour said. “To say this is a little heavy-handed is an understatement. It takes far too much control out of the hands of municipal government. Give our communities a chance to do it themselves.”

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