MILBRIDGE, Maine — Mano en Mano has all but one permit necessary to build a $1.2 million project to provide affordable housing to any Milbridge area resident who makes a living on the sea or on a farm.
All it needs is a building permit from the town.
Over the past two years, the coastal town has grabbed headlines not for its community outreach efforts or its scenic beauty, but rather because of a major controversy over the Mano en Mano project.
Mano en Mano, a not-for-profit agency serving primarily area Latino residents, proposed a six-unit residence that was awarded a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2008 to pursue the first housing of its type in Maine.
But debate over the issue became ugly, fast. Some residents strongly objected to the project, citing a loss of property tax revenue because Mano en Mano is a not-for-profit organization. Others claimed the housing would put a drain on school assets or become a drug haven.
Town officials pushed for a moratorium to give the Milbridge Planning Board time to draft local building standards.
And in the midst of everything, charges of racism began swirling and became a huge negative mark against a town that once won acclaim for its efforts to welcome and integrate immigrants.
Lawsuits were threatened and filed, injunctions obtained, and the project became a bitter topic among neighbors.
Now, however, Mano en Mano — which means hand in hand in Spanish — is launching a major educational effort, plans for the housing are proceeding on target, and a new director has begun several community outreach projects.
Mano en Mano’s new director, Ian Yaffe, has won state and national awards for his advocacy work and has embraced the mission at Milbridge.
“We serve an estimated 600 Latinos that live here,” he said, adding that the Milbridge area “has one of the most diverse populations in the state.”
Most of the people seeking and receiving services — such as English lessons, legal and health assistance, and affordable-housing advice — are already residents of the Milbridge area, not part of the estimated 12,000 migrant farm workers who pass through Washington County each year raking blueberries, making evergreen wreaths or doing other seasonal work.
Milbridge experienced a rapid influx of Latino immigrant workers who decided to leave the migrant stream and settle in the area 15 years ago. Yaffe explained that Mano en Mano was formed to meet the needs of those people and to build a bridge with the town of Milbridge and the surrounding area.
Maine’s Latino population grew by 67 percent between 2000 and 2007, Yaffe said, compared with the state’s average population growth of 3 percent.
“We want to bring the life skills necessary for those Latinos, such as education, access to health information and affordable housing,” Yaffe said.
“Mano en Mano is opening doors and helping people put down roots,” said Chloe Dowley, president of Mano en Mano’s board of directors. “We help them navigate the complex systems here, which can be overwhelming.”
Some of the services the organization provides from its Milbridge resource center include adult English classes, migrant education services, youth tutoring, a scholarship program, outreach for essential social services and community events.
Now that Mano en Mano has planning board approval, it hopes to obtain a building permit so that groundbreaking on the six-unit housing complex can be done in September. Yaffe expects construction to take nine months. The resulting housing will be available to any qualified workers engaged in agricultural or sea-related jobs, not just to Latinos, Yaffe said.
Yaffe said the housing is not for migrant families. “It is intended for people who already live here. You must be a U.S. citizen or resident and make a living from a farm or sea occupation,” he said.
Yaffe said to assuage the community’s concerns about lost tax revenue, Mano en Mano is working with Milbridge officials to donate funds to help offset that loss.
But Mano en Mano has been busy with many more projects than the housing unit, Yaffe said.
In 2009, the agency received 200 requests for assistance from more than 42 families, he said.
“This includes everything from English classes to income tax preparation assistance to providing Spanish classes for Milbridge residents,” he said.
The type of work Mano en Mano does has palpable ramifications, Yaffe said.
“By working with diverse populations to provide educational and affordable housing opportunities, remove barriers to health and social services, and advocate for social justice, we can make a stronger Down East community,” he said.