Jennifer Blackwell of Brunswick sits with her three-month-old daughter Gracelyn inside a small camper they're sharing with Blackwell's partner and two older children this summer. The camper was the family's only option as rents are increasingly scarce and expensive in Maine's midcoast region. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Maine’s affordable housing shortage feels almost inescapable at the moment, even for those not in the midst of a housing search. Imagine how people looking for housing feel.

Repeated reports have detailed the mismatch between income and rental prices, and the way a low housing inventory and higher buyer interest amid record home sales have contributed to a competitive housing market. The COVID-19 pandemic has made an already-strained situation worse.

Communities are working to figure out where they fit in the affordable housing picture, and whether to move forward with individual projects. The questions and complexities are numerous. If there is any good news here, however, it’s that there is no shortage of potential solutions.

“It’s going to take creativity, imagination, openness and a number of options,” Denise Lord, the senior director of communications and planning at the Maine State Housing Authority (MaineHousing), told the BDN Editorial Board in mid July. She offered a long list of avenues to be pursued, such as more workforce housing, multiple use housing, denser housing, housing cooperatives, repurposing existing and older homes, among others.

“Part of it is just imagination. We say we want to be diverse. How do we accomplish that?” Lord said, citing positive momentum in places like Biddeford, Lewiston and Belfast.

“It’s all of the above. It will require a number of solutions,” she said.

Greg Payne, the director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, emphasized that the affordable housing work needed “has to be an every level of government” effort that also includes collaboration with the private sector.

Payne told the editorial board in mid July that people working in the affordable housing space are “so inundated with an unprecedented amount of demand” right now. And he emphasized that while much of the affordable housing conversation involves the supply side of the equation in terms of creating more housing, people shouldn’t lose sight of addressing the demand through sustained rental assistance and additional federal housing vouchers.

With the expiration of a federal eviction moratorium, this is a critical moment for addressing that demand side by continuing to get the massive $25 billion amount of emergency rental relief already approved by Congress out the door to the American people who need it — both tenants and landlords. This is also a pivotal time for the government, service providers and advocates to prove to the American public that these resources can make a difference for their fellow citizens. Mishandle the moment, and they might not get another one of this magnitude.

As Lord told the editorial board, “We have considerable resources that we haven’t in the past.” This is an exciting time to take significant and deliberate steps to make housing more affordable and accessible, but it also requires people being aware of the resources available to them (look into rental relief through MaineHousing!) and it requires those resources actually getting out to the people who need them in a timely manner.

On the supply side of the housing equation, another important variable is local zoning ordinances, which can be a barrier to affordable housing development. Encouragingly, the Maine Legislature passed a bill from Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau — and did so with strong bipartisan support — to create a new commission to study local zoning and land use restrictions, and “consider measures that would encourage increased housing options” in Maine.

“I tend not to get overly excited about commissions,” Payne said. It’s a sentiment we share. But he added his sense that this one is positioned to “accomplish something of substance and value.” We hope that will be the case.

“There is bipartisan agreement that this whole zoning issue needs to be part of the solution,” Payne said.  

This is just one potential housing solution, but it is one of many.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...