Another Housing Solution – Adaptive Reuse, Housing and Land Banks

By Rebecca Casey, GrowSmart Board Member

GrowSmart Maine has been working with partners and state government to expand the use of Maine’s historic preservation tax credits to adaptive reuse programs.  What will this achieve? It will encourage people to re-use our beautiful and historic buildings as opposed to tearing them down, and allows them to be renovated as multi-family housing and/or homes to small business.

Housing shortages, especially of affordable housing, has been a problem in greater Portland and our other urban areas for years.  Maine Housing, CHOM, other organizations, and smart growth developers are working to address this both with new construction and by retrofitting older buildings to multi-unit housing using historic preservation tax credits. The quantity, however, is still inadequate.

Exacerbating this shortage is the COVID-19 trend that has people moving away from larger cities, which is putting upward pressure on home prices in rural Maine as well. Right now, mid-priced — and even higher-end — housing is also getting harder to find in many communities.  And despite this, a glut of undervalued housing stock on the market exists in pockets across the state.

It’s this not-so-glamorous issue, which has not received as much attention that is predicted to be part of a coming wave for communities across the country.  “The people who own homes now in thousands of declining communities may simply have to walk away from them,” says Arthur C. Nelson. Nelson, an expert in urban studies, public policy and land development, has spent a large part of his career studying the changing demand for suburban/non-urban homes. His proposed policy solutions include federal buyback programs (which ought to be a non-starter), and more plausibly, allowing adaptive reuse opportunities to split single-family homes into multi-units or accessory dwelling units.** This would empower aging (or any) owners to share their homes for rental income, caregivers or family members.  This is one viable action that can be taken to repurpose existing residential buildings.

Another solution is land banking, which is a local or regional tool growing in popularity and proving to be quite effective.  A land bank can legally assemble, temporarily manage, and dispose of vacant land for the purpose of stabilizing neighborhoods and encouraging re-use or redevelopment of urban property. It offers local leaders a new way to revitalize neighborhoods challenged by vacancy and abandonment.  The Center for Community Progress is a great resource for more information on this, and BuildMaine, one of GrowSmart Maine’s partners, has been looking specifically at the promise land banks hold for Maine.

The success of land banks – as stewards of redevelopment and adaptive reuse, empowered with an understanding of and focus on local and regional culture, engaged in dialogue with community stakeholders – promises a proactive tool for supporting smart growth investment in our Heritage cities and regional communities.

* Study Predicts Millions of Unsellable Homes Could Upend Market – The prediction by professor Arthur C. Nelson undermines the classic “big promise” in homeownership: that a home, after it’s paid off, can be sold for a retirement nest egg.  By Kyle Mittan, University Communications  Aug. 11, 2020