It would be easy to take the opportunity to dunk on Cape Elizabeth now that a few titled bigmouths have killed the city’s first affordable housing development in a generation.
But we really have to thank them.
If we’ve ever needed proof that the affordable housing crisis is a statewide problem that won’t be solved city-by-city, this is it. When the Legislature gets back to work next month, it is expected to pay particular attention to a report by a committee headed by State Senator Craig Hickman and Maine House President Ryan Fecteau – a report that identifies how local land use ordinances created regional housing. shortages and offers ideas on what the state can do about it.
As they strike up this conversation, what just happened in Cape should be Room A.
The project known as Dunham Court is said to have created 44 apartments. Most reportedly rented at below market rates, making them affordable for young workers and empty nesters whose incomes, depending on family size, are between $ 45,000 and $ 55,000 per year. Many senators and state officials come from cities that would have been delighted to receive such a proposal.
But the developers pulled out last week as after going through a grueling planning process with the city, in which they revised their proposal to take into account some of the criticisms, they faced a citizen-initiated referendum. which, even if they won, would cost too much. a lot of time and money.
You could say it’s just the loss of Cape Elizabeth. Long-time residents who would like their children to have the option of remaining in the community early in their careers, or those who would like to remain themselves after their children have grown up, will have fewer options.
But that’s not the problem of one city.
Housing prices are rising statewide, and it affects everything from daycares to nursing homes. Companies cannot hire the people they need and workers travel long distances because they cannot afford to live close to their workplace.
We have some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and much of it was built when families were bigger, jobs were more secure, and big manufacturing plants were running around the clock.
We don’t have enough of the right types of housing in the right places that are affordable given the kind of income people make here, and a moderate-sized project like Dunham Court would have eased the pressure in an area in desperate need of relief. .
Opponents of the project say they are not against affordable housing. They just didn’t like this project. Some say they don’t like the way the deal is structured, requiring zoning change and tax relief. Others oppose the loss of the open public space, or the design of the building, or how that would change the character of the city.
These are the kinds of things you are likely to hear about any development anywhere. Opponents don’t have to agree on why they don’t like the project, as long as they all say ‘no’. And they don’t need to be in the majority as long as they can delay the process long enough to make it unsustainable. The people who would benefit directly from it usually do not get a vote because they live elsewhere.
Most of the commission’s recommendations would have made no difference for a project like Dunham Court, but they address the issue of affordable housing supply through other means. Cities would still be responsible for drawing their own zoning maps, but the legislature could impose housing-friendly limits on what they can ban.
One proposal is to create the right for each owner to build a secondary housing unit – the planner talks about what are commonly referred to as “in-laws”. An owner could use the apartment to help out a family member or rent the space to help pay off their mortgage. An older couple might choose to live in the ADU and rent the house to a family.
Another proposal would be to allow multi-unit developments on areas that are zoned for single family homes. The commission recommends allowing up to four buildings on each zoned lot for single-family homes as long as the building meets local standards for things like lot size, setbacks, and sewers.
These are not quick fixes and they will not solve all aspects of the housing problem. But making new units available where they are needed would make a difference over time.
We cannot rely on local governments to care much about what is going on across the city. The state needs to step in and recognize that housing affordability is not just a local issue and start addressing it.