Housing Choices: A Key Part of Maine’s Future
Jeff Levine, GrowSmart Maine board member
Housing is not always seen as part of a state’s economic competitiveness. However, providing a safe place for workers to come home to is as important as providing them with good pay and working conditions. In an aging state such as Maine, it’s especially important to figure out how to attract and retain young residents. Given that they are more likely to be mobile than those who have settled down and perhaps had families, Maine is in a competition with other states for these residents.
Unfortunately, Maine is not doing very well in this competition. According to MaineHousing, the state’s median household income is only enough to comfortably fund 83% of the median two-bedroom apartment. This number is up a little from 2016, when it was 77%, but well below the number in 2000, when median household income could comfortably fund 95% of the median two-bedroom apartment. In other words, while Maine has always struggled with housing affordability, the struggle has become worse in the last few years.
This is not just a problem in Maine’s cities. While Cumberland County may have some of the most expensive housing in the state, affluent coastal communities also have significant affordability challenges. Other parts of Maine may have lower housing costs, but they are still high compared to the lower income levels in those regions.
Add on top of that challenge, we know that that established, mid-career households are looking to relocate to Maine for remote work and that is markedly driving housing prices up. Given this, it’s not surprising that many young people will decide to settle down elsewhere. They may move to place where housing is also expensive, but incomes are higher (think Boston.) Or they may decide to relocate to a part of the country where housing is simply cheaper (think the Midwest.)
What can Maine do to help address the issue of housing affordability? There are a few steps that will help:
- Maine communities can look at their zoning to see if they are truly allowing for affordable housing development. A recent study by the Greater Portland Council of Governments found that only 5 percent of the land in the Portland area is truly zoned to encourage multifamily housing development;
- The state can continue its recent efforts to fund housing production. The recently created State Low Income Housing Tax Credit and Senior Housing Bond were good steps. Next steps might involve incentivizing communities to update their local land use regulations to encourage affordable housing production; and
- State and local governments can take a proactive approach to addressing homelessness among Mainers. It’s far cheaper (and more humane) to provide housing than to fund shelters – or ignore these Mainers altogether. Once someone finds safe, secure housing, they are often able to address the issues that led to become homeless in the first place.
Housing is a complex problem, but ignoring it will cost more than addressing it.
Watch GrowSmart Maine’s webinar, as presented by Jeff Levine, on the topic of housing choices, recorded 6.22.2021: