In this June 22, 2017, file photo, Bangor City Hall is seen. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

Housing affordability was top of mind during a Thursday night forum with the seven candidates who are running for Bangor City Council.

The candidates running for the three open council seats expressed a range of opinions on related issues such as building new shelters and expanding public housing during a Bangor League of Women Voters candidate forum that followed a forum with Bangor School Committee candidates.

The pandemic has pushed to the fore longstanding issues such as a lack of affordable housing and a growing number of unhoused people in Bangor.

“We need more affordable, permanent, supportive housing. We need to continue to collaborate regionally, and at a state level to ensure we coordinate all resources and give people the best chance at long-term success,” candidate Free Martin said in response to a question about what he would do if elected to alleviate homelessness.

Martin is general manager of the Ramada Inn in Bangor, which has served as an extension of the Hope House homeless shelter for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Maine State Housing Authority leases the hotel, and Penobscot Community Health Care runs it as an extension of the Hope House.

“I think this is one of the most complex problems that any city can experience, and it’s a regional problem,” said Dina Yacoubagha, who also ran for the council in 2020.

She suggested that allowing more shelters to be built in Bangor would solve a “short-term problem” while allowing the city to help unhoused individuals address other compounding problems such as mental health and substance use disorder.

Bangor this fall considered amending its zoning rules to allow emergency shelters in the city, as shelters aren’t currently listed as a permitted type of property in city code. The Bangor Planning Board and City Council, however, rejected that change after residents voiced concerns.

“We can’t expect them to achieve in our community if we don’t support them to have access to housing,” Yacoubagha said. “It’s a combination of everything but definitely there is no one single solution.”

A dearth of available housing stock has also plagued Mainers looking to buy homes.

Joseph Leonard, who also ran for the council last year, touted existing programs in Bangor that help first-time homebuyers. He floated using the University of Maine’s 3D printing capabilities as a potential solution to producing more housing.

“It’s a wonderfully incredible technology that could help reduce the cost of new houses being built,” Leonard said. “We should think [of] all ideas to solve this very real issue.”

Access to affordable broadband access also emerged as a major issue, as the pandemic illuminated many Mainers’ lack of access to a tool that has been vital for remote learning and office work.

Councilor Gretchen Schaefer, who is running for reelection, said that increasing internet prices highlighted a growing need for access, especially as the city hoped to attract more businesses to diversify and expand its tax base. Small towns have set up robust municipal broadband networks, she noted.

“There’s no reason why Bangor can’t do it,” Schaefer said. “It’s only been proven more in the last year how important internet is for our families, for our businesses, for our schools, and I look forward to when we can offer that.”

Candidates Marlene Brochu and James Butler, as well as incumbent Councilor Susan Hawes, who is running for reelection, also participated.

Internet access and access to resources like mental health supports emerged as focal points among the five Bangor School Committee candidates.

While the return to a more normal school year appears to have alleviated certain challenges, kids reported higher than normal levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

Increased social media use during lockdown compounded that, candidate Eric Crawley said in a written statement. A coaching conflict prevented him from attending the forum.

“Social media is here to stay, and so are the dangers. I would make it a top priority of mine to bring more awareness to the dangers of social media to a student’s health,” Crawley wrote, suggesting that if elected he would encourage the school department to partner with outside organizations to teach students media literacy skills and give anti-cyberbullying presentations.

Sara Luciano echoed this and went further, advocating that the school department find a way to provide internet access to all families, in order to help them in taking a more proactive approach in monitoring their kids’ online activity.

“We’re encouraging all families to get involved with the internet, in a more positive and open way. When everyone has equal access to [the internet] it’s not as scary and we can be much more vigilant as parents,” she said.

Fellow candidate Imke Schessler-Jandreau encouraged more teacher-parent unity as a potential solution to addressing students’ mental health, noting a recent Brookings Institute study that found nearly a quarter of educators nationwide were considering leaving their jobs due to pandemic-related stressors.

“We need to, as a committee, as a community, figure out how we nurture and support the teachers in a meaningful way so that our students continue to have access to the best education possible,” she said.

“That will then trickle down to bettering the students’ mental health if the teachers are feeling less stressed.”

Ben Sprague and Carrie Mae Smith are also running for the school committee and participated in the forum. The Bangor Daily News plans candidate profiles in advance of next month’s election.

The election takes place Nov. 2, and absentee ballots are now available. Information about requesting one is available on the city’s website.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.