Maine has a housing crisis – there is not enough affordable, efficient, or convenient housing to support a sustainable economic future in our State. To begin to address this issue, policymakers at both the local and statewide levels have been examining options to increase housing development and affordability.
Some of those efforts have had the opposite of the intended effect. For example, Portland’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, designed to create more affordable housing, has essentially forced a stop to all new housing development planning by prohibitively driving up costs and disrupting the financial feasibility of new projects.
Fortunately, other efforts are underway to look at the true scale and scope of the issue and find solutions that can be implemented statewide as well as locally. One such effort is the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions (the Housing Commission). The Housing Commission was created as the brainchild of Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford, in an effort to understand what local and state zoning and land use barriers prevent the development of additional housing and what can be done to incentivize housing construction.
Over a series of meetings through the summer, fall, and into the winter of 2021, the Housing Commission reviewed the historical aspects of land use and zoning laws, took public comment on how to improve such laws, and issued a final report with several recommendations for consideration by the legislature in 2022. A complete copy of the final report can be found here.
Among the recommendations is the expansion of Accessory Dwelling Unit rules to allow one unit as a matter of right for most residential properties. Additionally, the Housing Commission supports the elimination of single-family zoning statewide. Both proposals would represent a significant shift in local control by placing more of the regulatory authority in the hands of the state. This is good news for developers who know all too well the challenges of navigating local zoning restrictions that vary depending on the community. This patchwork system has made it increasingly difficult to plan for regional housing needs, and a more uniform approach would provide greater predictability for developers.
The recommendations also include support for local municipalities to update and modernize their land use ordinances, and incentives for housing construction such as density bonuses or height exceptions for housing that meets an affordability threshold.
Interestingly, while the charge of the Housing Commission is to examine land use restrictions in the context of all housing, the Commissioners have been focused almost exclusively on affordable housing. For this reason, we expect any incentives that come out of the legislature will have at least some affordability requirements.
The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee will be considering legislation to effectuate some, all, or none of the recommendations. Interested parties may want to keep an eye on that Committee’s work during the 2022 session.