Daniel Boucher looks out of his apartment in Biddeford. Boucher has served on a special task force charged with looking at how to preserve and create affordable housing in Biddeford, where rents have increased dramatically in the past few years. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

If it was up to Michelle Byras she’d be living in an apartment in Biddeford with her children and grandchildren.

But after moving out of a $2,400-a-month apartment she shared with another family, Byras has been unable to find an apartment she can afford. She’s watched helplessly as buildings sold and rents jumped dramatically in a city once known as an affordable place to live.

“They’re scooping up all the buildings in Biddeford, fixing up the apartments, and charging New York prices,” said Byras, who is now paying $325 a week for a winter rental in Lisbon while she looks for an apartment.

Many long-term Biddeford residents are struggling to keep up with the cost of housing. A city survey conducted last summer found that 70% of respondents knew someone who had to move because it was too expensive. 

City officials are now considering ways to preserve and create more affordable housing while maintaining the city’s socioeconomic diversity.

“We’re trying to help stop long-term residents from being priced out,” said Doris Ortiz, a city councilor and chairperson of a task force that spent the past year examining strategies to tackle Biddeford’s affordable housing crisis.


The final recommendations from the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Task Force will be presented to the City Council this month. They mirror several efforts in Portland and include adopting inclusionary zoning, creating an Affording Housing Fund, and a goal of creating or preserving 900 affordable units by 2028. The task force stopped short of recommending rent control.

Revitalization work led by Heart of Biddeford began in 2004, five years before the city’s last textile mill closed and eight years before the city purchased the Maine Energy Recovery Center, which included the trash incinerator that dominated the downtown landscape. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


The city council began looking at housing affordability several years ago as Biddeford’s revitalization drew more people to the city. It adopted an early set of goals: increase home ownership, create more “next home” opportunities for people to move out of starter homes, and rehabilitate rental units to make sure they are lead-free.

The city wanted to create or preserve 450 units of affordable housing each year for five years to serve people earning 40% to 80% of the median income and create at least 200 first-time homeownership opportunities for households earning between 80% and 120% of the median income.

Soon after those goals were adopted, the pandemic hit. The impact on Biddeford housing was evident almost immediately as skyrocketing housing costs pushed people out of big cities all along the East Coast and remote workers moved to Maine.

Many brought incomes that allow them to pay higher rents, local officials say. In just a few years, the increased rental costs far outpaced the incomes of working-class residents.


Market rents in Biddeford – where for decades it was easy to find affordable apartments – have risen steeply since 2012, from $863 for a two-bedroom apartment that year to $1,211 in 2020, a 40% increase in eight years. Some premier downtown rents are now more than$2,500 a month.

“It’s a very tough time to be in Biddeford or a coastal community similar to Biddeford because people from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York are coming here,” said Daniel Boucher, a member of the housing task force. “You don’t have to live where you work now in many cases. It’s changed the way people are looking at housing and where they want to live.”

Since 2012, more than 800 multifamily buildings had been sold and by 2020 were fetching upward of $94,000 per unit, up from less than $53,000 per unit three years ago, according to an analysis from the city’s assessing department.

Boucher, who has lived in Biddeford for 68 years and rents an apartment near downtown, has seen rents and home prices rise to the highest level in his lifetime. He says he is lucky he hasn’t faced steep rent hikes like many others.

“I’ve seen Biddeford, especially the downtown area, on its high note and I’ve seen it in the ’80s at its lowest,” he said. “Now I see a resurgence and the cost of housing has gone up because it’s now an attractive place to be. It’s come full circle.”

Daniel Boucher has served on a task force charged with looking at how to preserve and create affordable housing in Biddeford, where rents have increased dramatically in the past few years. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As task force members examined the housing market, they were confronted with a paradox: because the income of renters in the community rose nearly 52% in just three years ($31,048 in 2017 to $47,140 in 2020) the city appeared to be more affordable to renters, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rental Affordability Index.


But the reality was different for many individuals. Many long-term residents pay a greater percentage of their monthly income today than they did when they started renting five or 10 years ago, the task force concluded.

“The longer you’ve lived here, the less likely you’ll be able to afford it,” Ortiz said.


After nearly a year of research and discussion, the task force voted this month to present its recommendations to the city council at the Jan. 24 meeting. City Manager James Bennett told the task force he anticipates the council will take up the issue right away, even as they head into the busy budget season.

“I don’t believe there is any member of the council that doesn’t see this as a pressing issue,” he said.

The most significant recommendation is that the city adopts an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires all new rental buildings to set aside some units as affordable housing.


Biddeford City Manager James Bennett City of Biddeford Photo

Portland adopted a similar inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2015 that requires all new developments with 10 or more units to meet a 10% workforce housing requirement or pay a fee. In 2020, voters increased the workforce housing requirement to 25%.

Biddeford is considering a tiered approach based on the number of affordable units and how long the rent would be capped based on the affordability level. For example, if the units were affordable at 80% of the area median income, 7.5% of units would need to be affordable for 10 years.

Or developers could apply for a waiver and pay $100,000 per unit that would have been rented at an affordable rate. Smaller projects, between five and nine units, would pay a fixed fee of $7,500 per unit, though some members want the council to consider an affordable unit option, too. That money would go into an Affordable Housing Fund to support new affordable housing and the homeless population.

Task force member Ian Garcia-Grant said during a Jan. 3 meeting that the focus all along has been on making sure that a percentage of new housing is locked in at affordable rates. 

“The more supply we create in Biddeford, the more demand that comes into Biddeford from the surrounding area. We have all the overflow from Portland and its surrounding cities,” he said. “We’re in a situation on the ground where there is essentially an unlimited demand that will always saturate any supply we can create.”

The task force ultimately decided rent control was not a good fit because of potential negative impacts seen in other cities, including property owners converting rental units to condos and landlords not maintaining buildings. Ortiz said task force members did not feel rent control would help achieve its goals.

Portland, where voters approved rent control in 2020 and added new restrictions last year, is the only Maine city with community-wide rent control. The ordinance caps the amount landlords can increase rent annually, puts limits on security deposits, outlines how much notice landlords can give for rent increases, and outlaws application fees.

Ortiz is eager to jump into discussions with the council, but recognizes it’s a complex issue and said “time isn’t on our side.” She also knows the city can’t fix the problem alone.

“It’s something that we’re trying to do locally here, but it’s something that as a region we’re going to have to work on as well,” she said. “We’re going to end up with a lot of homeless people. We don’t have a shelter here and the state has not yet done something to help the region. We’re trying to avoid that situation and keep folks here.”

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