AUGUSTA — The Maine House voted 78 to 51 Thursday night in favor of a bill that supporters say will ease Maine’s affordable housing crisis, in part by allowing duplexes and secondary suites to be built on plots of single-family homes.
The bill’s main sponsor, House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford and other affordable housing advocates on Thursday launched a last-ditch effort to pass the bill, which would loosen local zoning restrictions to encourage more housing construction. It still faces debate and a vote in the Senate before going to Governor Janet Mills for a signature.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Fecteau said that while the legislation has been significantly scaled back to address concerns about the erosion of local control over land use, the bill is a “huge step forward in the right direction.” direction” to meet the housing needs of the State.
Fecteau, in his address to his House colleagues on Thursday evening, called the legislation a compromise – a single solution aimed at meeting the demand for more affordable housing.
“I recognize that it will not be the miracle solution that will solve all our (housing) problems,” Fecteau told the House. “These efforts should increase the number of affordable units in the state of Maine, allowing Mainers to contribute to solutions to the state’s housing crisis in their own backyards.”
The House vote followed a protracted debate on the floor, with several Democrats saying more housing is needed for working families and for young people and retirees who cannot afford to live in the state. Some Republicans have also spoken in favor, arguing that the bill would restore some measure of private property rights by removing overly restrictive local zoning rules, and that it is necessary to ensure Maine has the labor needed to grow the economy.
Rep. Traci Gere, D-Kennebunkport, shared the story of a local resident who wanted to build an accessory unit on her 3-acre lot so her daughter could afford to stay in Maine, but isn’t allowed to do so because of local zoning regulations.
“It’s a constant problem that so many people face,” Gere said.
“Young people are being forced out of the state for better paying jobs and more affordable housing,” said Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland. “It is not only young people who are being hit hard by this housing crisis, but also people of retirement age.”
Rep. Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, said the bill was needed to support the economy.
“If we want to attract businesses to Maine, where will they find their employees? Will they attract people from out of state? And if they do, are they supposed to live in their car? »
LOCAL CONTROL A PROBLEM
Some Republican members representing rural towns spoke out against the bill, saying the state shouldn’t overrule municipal land-use decisions and arguing that rules designed for more built-up communities won’t work in other places. other parts of the state.
Rep. Joel Stetkis, R-Canaan, said parts of the bill “clearly violate ideas of local control and autonomy.”
An additional 25,000 units are needed to meet current housing demand, Fecteau said at a news conference Thursday. The state currently produces about 250 units a year, well below the 1,000 units needed to meet demand, he said. The lack of supply drives up housing prices.
“We’re seeing that in full force right now in every community across the state,” Fecteau said. “It’s not just a southern Maine problem.”
The original version of the bill would have allowed up to four units to be built on single-family home lots, provided other land use requirements were met. According to the latest version, this provision only applies to designated “growth areas” in certain communities. It was unclear on Thursday how many communities would be affected by this change.
Owners of single-family homes would be allowed to build in-law apartments or secondary suites – a proposal very likely to benefit caregivers or older Mainers looking to downsize their housing while remaining in their community. And Fecteau said the bill would also allow landlords in those areas to build a two-unit apartment building on a single-family lot.
CONTROVERSIAL ITEMS REMOVED
More controversial proposals were scrapped, such as eliminating a municipality’s ability to set growth caps limiting the number of new homes allowed to be built in a given year and creating a commission statewide appeal that could quash local opposition to housing products.
The bill still includes incentives and technical assistance for municipalities trying to update their zoning codes to encourage more housing. The $3 million housing opportunity program was included in the governor’s budget, which is being reviewed by lawmakers.
And the bill would allow developers to build more housing units – a so-called density bonus – as long as a percentage of those units remain affordable for 30 years.
Jeff Levine, a consultant and lecturer in economic development and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who served on the housing commission that recommended the local zoning changes, said in an interview that the amended version of the bill is one of the most important housing bills. over the past 20 years and places Maine among a handful of states seeking to enact statewide zoning reform.
“Passing a law is always a matter of compromise,” he said. “A number of compromises have been made here, but I believe these are compromises that do not compromise the fundamental purpose of the bill and hopefully address some stakeholders’ concerns about the original bill. .”
The Maine Municipal Association continues to oppose the bill. Supporters of the bill include the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and AARP.
Debate over the bill has centered on two long-standing values in the state – local control and private property rights. The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee twice reconsidered its approval of the proposal before finally approving it along party lines on Tuesday.
Fecteau noted that the bill no longer contains provisions contested by the municipal association. And, he said, a series of technical changes were made to clarify the wording of the bill at the request of the association.
Fecteau also said local regulations regarding setbacks, water resources, height and the like would not be affected by the bill.
THE MUNICIPAL ASSOCIATION REMAINS OPPOSED
Maine Municipal Association legislative attorney Kate Dufour, who served on the select committee that issued the recommendations informing the bill, said the group’s message was consistent throughout the process: residents Local and municipal authorities are best placed to regulate housing.
“Municipalities need flexibility, tools, technical assistance and incentives to implement state policy objectives,” Dufour said. “Mandates and the erosion of local control are not the appropriate approaches to solving the housing problem, just as the passing of local ordinances is not the only contributor to the current housing crisis. Market forces, the pandemic-related flight to Maine and inflationary costs have contributed to the housing crisis.
Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, and Senate co-sponsor, took aim at the municipal association during a press conference at State House.
“The MMA has become the ‘no’ organization,” Hickman said, noting the limits on a municipality’s self-governing authority in the state Constitution. “The authority of autonomy is prescribed by the Constitution and the legislature controls it. And that’s something that MMA doesn’t seem to want to understand.”
Dufour called Hickman’s remark “troubling.”
“The message sent to the people of Maine is that if you disagree with those in power, you will be ridiculed,” she said. “It’s a dangerous (precedent) that could have a chilling effect on public engagement in the process.”
Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.
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