MILBRIDGE, Maine — A local nonprofit organization is planning to file a federal lawsuit against the town in reaction to a moratorium on multifamily housing that has halted a project that would benefit farmworker families.
In 2008, Mano en Mano received a $1 million federal grant to build off-farm farmworker housing, but the town’s 180-day moratorium, which came two years after Mano en Mano initiated the subdivision approval process, halted the project.
The lawsuit, which is drafted and expected to be filed this week, would seek to enforce the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, basically challenging the validity of the moratorium and the town’s reasons for it.
Anais Tomezsko, executive director of Mano en Mano, said the problems in Milbridge appear to be rooted partially in racism. A petition against the project circulated even before the project had funding, clearly stating its signers objected to housing for minorities.
“The town appears to be reacting to that petition,” Tomezsko said. “And if they are, they are reacting in a racist fashion.”
Mano en Mano, a nonprofit organization serving the Latino community, grew out of grassroots efforts by residents to extend a hand to their new neighbors nearly 10 years ago. The majority of the people settling in Milbridge at that time were farmworkers looking for a place to live year-round and raise their families, Tomezsko said. “They found that here, in this small coastal town.”
“Ten years ago I considered Maine to be far away and cold. Today I appreciate where I am. It feels like home,” said Edith Flores, a farmworker and Milbridge resident.
Tomezsko said the six-unit housing planned for Wyman Road would serve U.S. citizens who made a certain percentage of their living from agriculture or aquaculture. A tenant does not have to be Latino to qualify for the housing.
“A sternman on a lobster boat could live there. A worker in the blueberry factory could live there,” Tomezsko said.
Town officials have maintained the moratorium enacted on June 16 was necessary because the town does not have adequate zoning to deal with the project.
Town Manager Lewis Pinkham said Wednesday he stands by the moratorium, which he said was put in place to give the town time to deal with zoning and building code issues.
Mano en Mano feels those reasons are a smoke screen.
“There have been two other subdivisions on that same road,” Tomezsko said. “There was no moratorium for them. Fifteen years ago, there was another multifamily unit with 14 units — two times what we are planning — and it didn’t face a moratorium.”
Tomezsko said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is funding the project, also plans to file a complaint against the town under the Fair Housing Act this week.
“Mano en Mano is committed to the project and understands its positive impact for the town and the families affected by the affordable housing shortage. For that reason we must pursue every channel available to us to make sure this project gets back on track.” Tomezsko said.
The overall need for affordable housing in Down East Maine is well documented, Tomezsko said. In addition, farmworkers’ options often are limited to substandard, seasonal employee-based housing.
“The grant presented a unique opportunity for Mano en Mano and the town of Milbridge to provide safe and more secure housing for those workers and their families who are an increasingly integral part of the economic and social fabric of the area,” she said.