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Maine needs more affordable housing. This is a fairly widespread, mostly non-controversial perspective. What tends to get controversial, unfortunately, is the location of actual affordable housing projects.
A recent example has emerged in Cape Elizabeth, where some residents are pushing back against a proposed 49-unit apartment building in the town’s center. Priscilla Armstrong, who spoke at a recent Cape Elizabeth Town Council meeting, accurately summed up the resistance that these types of projects often face.
“Despite everybody wildly applauding that they support affordable housing, they want it someplace else,” Armstrong said, as reported by the Portland Press Herald. “Well, I don’t particularly feel that our town center is a vision of loveliness, [but] I think this plan is lovely. It’s the center of town. It’s where it should be.”
It’s a shame to see “not in my backyard” evolve to the point of “not in my town center.” We agree with Armstrong — the proposed location, which is in what could be considered Cape Elizabeth’s commercial center, seems like a good place to site affordable housing, where it would be near a grocery store, schools and municipal services.
Addressing Maine’s affordable housing crunch is an all-hands-on-deck effort that should take root in communities across the state — even in affluent seaside towns where many of the area’s workers cannot currently afford to live.
“The need is there, and we have to do what we have to do for people,” Cape Elizabeth resident Linda Maxwell said. “I mean, the people have to have places to live.”
We realize that this Dunham Court proposal would require several zoning amendments. That’s not the same thing as residents trying to change existing zoning to scuttle the project, which would be worse. The call from some for a town committee to study affordable housing sounds reasonable. There’s nothing wrong with trying not to rush things. But the need for more affordable housing is not a new revelation — not even in Cape Elizabeth.
Town Planner Maureen O’Meara said in May that conversations about affordable housing in Cape Elizabeth date back to at least the 1990s, according to the Press Herald. This hasn’t just popped up out of nowhere.
In the town’s 2019 comprehensive plan, there was this recognition: “For anyone entering the market, such as first time homebuyers, housing costs pose a severe challenge. For Cape Elizabeth to assess its fair share, and define its share of the solution, would require an extensive study of the region’s needs, assessing the degree of need for each of the different income groups, for both rental housing and homeownership.”
Studying the issue and acting on it aren’t mutually exclusive. Towns can take steps to better understand their long term role in addressing the need for more affordable housing without putting off actual projects right in front of them.
The ultimate answer to Maine’s affordable housing shortage won’t be study committees or moratoriums. Too often those types of activities can amount to inaction framed as deliberation. The answer, or at least one of the answers, will be deciding to build more affordable housing. Not in somebody else’s city or town. In all of our cities and towns.