Maine has a strong ethic of home rule: the belief that local governments are the best judges of local needs.

But the statewide affordable-housing crisis shows that isn’t always the case.

Instead of addressing one of the most basic human needs, many municipal governments have passed land-use ordinances over the years that have made the problem worse. Limits on building permits and single-family zoning push people looking for affordable housing across the town line but do nothing to make sure that people have a place to live.

Competition for housing drives up prices, putting pressure on young people entering the workforce, families trying to put down roots and older adults looking to downsize. It also puts a lid on the state’s economy, making it harder for businesses to recruit employees. One in five renters pays more than half their income for housing. The median price for a home sold in Maine last year was nearly $300,000, far beyond the reach of the median-income homebuyer.

A bill before the Legislature this session gives the state a role in solving this statewide problem. L.D. 2003 is based on the work of a bipartisan commission co-chaired by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, who is also the sponsor of the bill.

The bill identifies 10 changes to state law that would make a difference.

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The two that could have the biggest near-term impact tackle single-family zoning directly.

If it becomes law, the bill would require municipalities to allow accessory dwelling units (also known as in-law apartments) to be added to existing one-family homes.

In a separate section, the bill would require that local zoning rules allow up to four-unit buildings on any lot that is zoned for housing as long as the project meets all other regulations such as setbacks, water, wastewater and shoreland zoning.

A longer-term solution in the bill would require towns and cities to identify “priority development zones,” or areas near community resources where denser development and multifamily housing can be built. Instead of taking away local control, this would put the community in the driver’s seat, allowing local people to direct the kind of future they want.

Not every town in Maine needs to build more housing, but what the current crisis shows is that zoning regulations don’t give the state the flexibility needed to build affordable housing where and when it makes sense. Making sure that there is room for growth in every town means that we can grow in the right places at the right times.

Making sure that everyone can have a home should be more important than home rule.


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