If you think that all this talk about “upzoning” to build more housing is some kind of left-wing conspiracy, you should take a look at Auburn.

You’d find a city led by Republican Mayor Jason Levesque, who has set the audacious goal of building 2,000 new housing units by 2025, enough to increase Auburn’s population by 25 percent.

The plan is to do it through deregulation, simplifying the zoning code and making it easier for private builders to meet the pent-up demand for housing in Maine’s fifth largest city. Levesque is not trying to attract luxury condos or gated communities of mini-mansions: He says the goal to build on Auburn’s strengths at what he calls “a blue-collar utopia.”

So far, the city reports more than 800 housing units engaged in or through the permitting process, mostly in multifamily apartment complexes, like the 128-unit development announced last week. New applications for single-family homes and add-on apartments are expected to follow.

It’s an approach that got the attention of Discourse Magazine, the online journal of the libertarian Mercatus Institute at George Mason University, which is touting Auburn as a national model:

“In terms of allowing new investment in established neighborhoods, Auburn’s new zoning goes far beyond the celebrated reforms in Minneapolis and Oregon,” says Salim Furth, an economist with Mercatus who has advised the city on its zoning reforms. “Instead of latching on to one kind of housing, Auburn has opened up its neighborhoods to innovation.”


If this makes you think that zoning reform might actually be a Koch Industries-funded right-wing plot, take a breath. The most important lesson Maine can learn from Auburn is that multiple ways exist to grapple with the statewide shortage of affordable housing, and there is no reason that we should get bogged down in the partisan gridlock that stymies progress on so many issues.

As the Discourse article points out, Maine’s housing problem is really multiple interlocking problems.

A chronic housing shortage became acute during the pandemic, when new residents flocked to Maine and the price of a single-family home jumped by nearly 40 percent.

That’s pushed young families out of the home-buying market, increasing competition for scarce rental units. Rising rents have attracted private equity funds, who are buying existing affordable housing developments and jacking up the rents.

We don’t have to accept it. Today’s housing shortage is a result of policy choices that were made decades ago, but we can make different choices to make sure that there is enough housing for young people who have grown up in Maine or want to come here to work.

This year, Maine became the third state to ban single-family-only zoning. Under the law signed by Gov. Mills last month, homeowners will be allowed to add an accessory dwelling unit, sometimes known as “an in-law apartment,” to any single-family home, as long as it meets local setback and other requirements.


Towns are also required to identify “growth zones,” where buildings of up to four units are permitted in what had been single-family zones.

These new regulations will be in place in time to take advantage of housing incentives announced by the Biden administration. Using money appropriated in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the federal government will begin to:

• Reward jurisdictions that have reformed zoning and land-use policies with higher scores in some grant programs.

• Integrate affordable housing in transportation programs, providing financial support for infrastructure that includes residential development.

• Fill financing gaps to build and preserve affordable housing, including manufactured housing.

Combined with the new state requirements, communities across Maine can do what Auburn is doing, which is developing a housing strategy that works not just for the people who currently live there but also for the ones who will be living there in the future.

Maine’s future will be formed by the choices we make now. As Auburn is showing, there are many ways to do the right thing.

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