State affordable housing commission has little time to address big problem

Posted Oct. 26, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 26, 2011, at 2:21 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new state housing commission tasked with addressing the growing need to create more affordable housing in Maine faces an enormous challenge in a short window of time.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordable Housing, created by legislation that passed in the spring, met for the first time Wednesday to define the scope of the problem and to begin finding ways to address it.

It didn’t take long for the commission’s 17 members to realize how broad and interwoven Maine’s affordable housing crisis has become.

“I think we still need to get our arms around the issue of affordable housing and then prioritize what we can do to help fix it,” said Sen. Thomas Martin, R-Benton, the commission’s co-chairman. “We’ll need to find areas where we can get the most bang for our buck.”

The commission’s goal is to present a report with recommendations to the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee by the beginning of next year and then, it is hoped, use those recommendations to draft legislation.

At the close of Wednesday’s meeting, however, the housing commission planned to meet just three more times — once in November and twice in December — before settling on its priorities and drafting its report.

That’s not a lot of time, members said.

Martin said identifying geographic areas where the need is greatest or designating certain populations with the greatest risk, such as the homeless or the elderly, likely will narrow the commission’s focus.

Commission members began Wednesday by digesting a voluminous amount of information from representatives of MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority and an organization that has the most resources and money to address affordable housing.

MaineHousing operates a number of programs, mostly with federal dollars, that aim to make housing and living more affordable for low-income Mainers. Among them are the first-time homebuyers loan program, the federal Section 8 rental assistance program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and various housing and assistance programs that benefit the homeless.

Among the challenges cited by MaineHousing staff members Peter Merrill and Adam Krea in their presentation Wednesday to the commission were housing and rental costs that don’t match the median income in a specific area, the lack of affordable housing in close proximity to job markets and the poor quality of available housing in some areas.

According to recent census data, 63 percent of Maine households are unable to afford the median home price in their areas. About 55 percent of renter households cannot afford the statewide average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, about $722.

Compounding factors that are specific to Maine include a rapidly aging housing stock, the oldest median age in the country and the high number of households defined as low income.

Commission members largely agreed on the problems but differed on what should be done to address them.

For instance, commission member Wayne Wright said he believes over-regulation is part of the problem. He builds and sells modular homes in Hancock County and said it costs 25 percent more to build Federal Housing Authority projects than it does to build private housing.

Not everyone agreed with that assessment.

Member Julia Wilcock with Volunteers of America, an organization that manages public housing projects across the country, said those regulations exist for a reason: they ensure the safety and longevity of the construction.

Member Kevin Bunker, a real estate developer in Portland, agreed and said those regulations are the result of lessons learned from the past. Bunker also said if the commission wants to identify the best solutions to tackling affordable housing, it might need to look at what has worked in other states.

Another area of discussion was buying versus renting. Member Jonathan Labonte, head of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said if the last decade taught us anything it’s that not everyone should be encouraged to buy a home. For some, he said, their housing goal should be simpler: making sure they have a roof over their head.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordable Housing meets again Nov. 9, when members will be presented additional information on specific areas of interest and then will start developing its recommendations.

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