Maine is at crossroads with affordable housing. It has been playing catch up for decades between the dwindling availability of affordable housing and the increasing demand for it. Now a raft of proposed new laws tries to address the problem, and federal recovery money is available to help implement new policies. Discussing which policies and changes make the most sense are panelists Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta Housing, Jeff Levine, owner of Levine Planning Strategies and a longtime Portland planner, and Amy Cullen, vice president of The Szanton Co., a mixed-income housing developer.


Takeaways from the conversation

The focus on affordable housing needs to return to production. Until the 1980s, the federal government invested directly in the creation of affordable housing through HUD and rural development authorities. But that policy changed and awarding tax credits became the primary way to finance affordable housing. The impact in Maine was significant. Prior to the policy change, about 1,100 units of affordable housing were created annually in Maine, targeted for the poorest residents, and after that production fell to 300 units per year serving people who were half as poor.

Other major factors contributing to the affordable housing problem Maine faces now: static zoning policies that have not changed with the times and do not serve current needs; a widening gap between wages and the cost of housing; and lack of a statewide policy on housing and the municipal tools to implement those policies. Additionally there are byzantine and disparate financing options that create a “wedding cake” layer-upon-layer model for financing affordable housing projects. Some elements from the critical mass of bills in Augusta now address those factors, but not all.

Innovation is happening in Auburn, where local government is trumpeting the need for affordable housing and aggressively pushing for ways to support it through things like  tax increment financing and consideration of converting public lands and buildings to affordable housing. Outside of Maine, Vermont is considering a bill to provide gap financing between the cost of building a home and its value once built. The measure would give homeowners some protection against spiking construction costs so a new home doesn’t cost more to build than its market value when finished.

Maine should consider raising the cap on historic preservation tax credits. The law, enacted in 2008, has a $5 million cap that hasn’t been raised since inception.

Communities would do well to listen to their younger residents. Many people 35 and younger cannot find affordable housing and are leaving because of it, exacerbating the state’s demographic challenges.

The creation of municipal housing trust funds could help communities address a shortage of affordable housing at the local level.

The $50 million earmarked for affordable housing from federal pandemic aid would best be spent creating more housing. The state currently meets only one-quarter of the need for affordable housing.

On the panel:

Dana Totman has led the nonprofit affordable housing provider Avesta Housing through an incredible period of growth and impact over the past 21 years. As Avesta’s president and CEO, Dana’s forward-thinking and people-centered approach has resulted in safe, quality, affordable homes for nearly 20,000 individuals. He has been a passionate advocate for affordable housing for people in need for more than three decades and is leading Avesta into its 50th year as an organization that is well-positioned to continue its impressive path of affordable housing development and community impact in Maine and New Hampshire.

Prior to his work with Avesta, Dana held leadership roles at Maine State Housing Authority and Coastal Economic Development Corp. He has a BA in Public Management from the University of Maine and an MBA from Southern New Hampshire University. Dana attended Duke University’s Government Leadership Program and completed programming with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He received the Catalyst Award from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2020, was inducted into Maine’s Business Hall of Fame by Junior Achievement of Maine in 2018, received the Maine State Housing Authority’s Steven Mooers Affordable Housing Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, was named Mainebiz’s Business Leader of the Year in 2013, and received the Maine Real Estate and Development Association’s Robert B. Patterson, Jr. Founder’s Award in 2013.


Jeff Levine, AICP, is an urban planner who has worked in New England for 25 years. Currently, he is the Owner and Principal of Levine Planning Strategies, a small consulting firm that specializes in bridging the gap between the development community and city planners. He is also a faculty member of the Department of Urban Studies & Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Until 2019, he was the Director of Planning & Urban Development for the City of Portland. In Portland, he developed a set of tools to increase the development of low-income and workforce housing. These tools included development of an inclusionary zoning program for both residential and hospitality developments; creation of a sustainable Local Housing Trust; and land use ordinance changes to allow developers of affordable housing to build along the nodes and corridors selected in Portland’s Plan for infill development.

He has worked on housing policy and planning in Augusta, Bath Hallowell, Skowhegan, the Greater Portland region, Nashua, NH, and Malden, MA. He served on the Maine Legislature’s Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions. Currently he is also serving as the Interim Director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

Amy Cullen is a Partner and Vice President of The Szanton Company, a Portland-based mixed-income housing developer. In her 16 years of development experience, Amy has worked on the creation of 533 new units in 10 apartment buildings across Maine and New Hampshire, with another 4 properties and 250 units scheduled to come online in the next 2 years. In addition to her development work, Amy is the President of Saco Falls Management, an affiliate of the Szanton Company.​ Under Amy’s leadership since its inception in 2013, Saco Falls Management has quadrupled its gross annual revenues and now operates a growing portfolio of 11 properties. Amy is the Chair of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and serves as the Treasurer on the board of directors of Maine Real Estate Managers Association. She previously served on South Portland Planning Board. Amy is an Army veteran of 12 years, and holds a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Accounting from Husson University.


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