It’s not news – the biggest challenge holding back Maine’s economy is the severe shortage of affordable workforce housing in almost the entire state. Fortunately, a sensible bill (L.D. 2003) is being debated right now in the Maine Legislature that can help ensure more Mainers have safe, affordable places to call home. We, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Maine Equal Justice. are united in support of these much-needed steps toward systemic reform that are part of L.D. 2003.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Maine housing is underbuilt by about 20,000 affordable rental housing units. There are thousands more Mainers who make below the state’s household median income of $57,918 and struggle to pay for safe housing. Even those at the higher end of the income ladder can’t find homes near their work – a serious impediment when trying to attract highly skilled employees.

It wasn’t always that way. Like many New England states, Maine experienced its most dynamic periods of growth before the advent of exclusionary zoning introduced in the 1920s – rules that favored the wealthy and those with cars and were designed to exclude people based on race. From Portland’s Old Port to coastal fishing communities and mill towns along our major rivers, dense and walkable housing clusters allowed workers and families to live near jobs, schools and small businesses. Unfortunately, we’ve moved away from that with the advent of cheap, once-rural land developed for shopping centers and restrictive zoning that has pushed new development further afield – in a word, sprawl.

Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau has sponsored a bold package of zoning reforms to unlock private and public capital to build the housing Maine needs. While Portland, Westbrook and Belfast are rewriting their land use codes to promote more housing in downtown clusters close to jobs, schools, transportation and other community amenities, the speaker’s bill will put forward sensible statewide standards, incentives and technical support to help more communities embrace change.

Discussions on the creation of more housing are currently centered at the municipal level, in lengthy meetings that are dominated by wealthier, well-housed property owners. Those who would benefit most from new housing, however, are losing to the loudest voices. Renters, New Mainers, young families, older residents and employers in desperate need of more employees are not as well represented or heard. Last year, in Cape Elizabeth, that kind of vocal minority was able to hijack the municipal process and bully a well-respected developer of affordable housing from building a 49-unit development at the heart of Cape’s village center, where kids could walk to school and older residents could grocery shop. The outcome was to keep Cape Elizabeth a virtual gated community.

Your legislators need to hear loud and clear your support for reforming zoning and land use through L.D. 2003. Municipal decision makers need to hear clearly from constituents in support of developments like the Downs project’s application in Scarborough that will create hundreds of units of housing in that town’s new town center, and other innovative solutions, like the proposal to turn a hotel into 94 units of workforce housing at Candlewood Suites in Scarborough. Remember, more people are dying in Maine than are being born, which has dire implications for health care services, taxes, schools and jobs. We need housing to help replenish the workforce, and to ensure Maine’s communities are inviting, vibrant and diverse.

Make a difference: Get engaged in the zoning approval processes in your town; let your elected officials know you stand affirmatively on the side of more housing and new neighbors, and don’t let the loud minority of those who are resistant to change stand in the way of sensible progress for all of us. The future of our state, its people and its economy depends on it.

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