The Working Waterfront

Housing commission recommends statewide policies

Local control responsible for stifling affordable housing

Tom Groening
Posted 2022-05-17
Last Modified 2022-05-17

A commission studying affordable housing in Maine had a narrow focus—how local zoning and land use rules could be changed to create more housing. But one of its recommendations would cut to the core of how cities and towns currently function by pushing municipalities toward state standards.

The “home rule” principle, established in 1969, gives local governments broad latitude in adopting ordinances, including those that regulate housing—minimum lots sizes, single-family districts, and secondary housing units. The commission noted that exceptions to that principle already exist, such as state rules on shoreland and subdivision development.

Local control is a two-edged sword, affordable housing advocates have said, and the current example of the cruel side of that sword came late last year in Cape Elizabeth. An apartment complex planned for lower-income households was blocked by a citizen referendum there. In the absence of a statewide policy on housing with teeth, upper-income communities can close their doors to such developments.

The legislatively created commission, which issued its report in late winter, met through the second half of 2021 and focused on:

• housing shortages for low- and middle-income Mainers
• state laws that affect local housing development rules
• efforts in other states to reduce zoning impediments to affordable housing
• measures such as municipal incentives and state mandates related to housing density
• the role racism plays in zoning policy

The report is blunt in explaining the problem.

“Maine is facing an affordable housing crisis” it asserts and acknowledges that “changes to zoning alone will not address the challenges of housing Maine residents.” While zoning changes will help affordability and equity, that policy initiative is just one thrust, the commission conceded.

In part because of the pandemic, “the supply of homes for sale is at a record low,” while low interest rates have boosted purchases.
The state has the eighth oldest housing stock in the nation, the commission reports. In 2020, the median home price was $256,000.

The report notes that in Maine, 72% of housing units are owned while 28% are rented.

The report notes that in Maine, 72% of housing units are owned while 28% are rented.

That median purchase price is “unaffordable for median income households” in all the coastal counties except Washington County.
Median rental prices are unaffordable for median incomes in all Maine counties except Franklin County.

Before the pandemic, demand for housing was strongest near urban areas, along the coast, and along the I-95 corridor, but now the preference is for areas with access to broadband.

The commission asserts that zoning and land use rules “have a direct impact on the availability of housing,” and cites early laws that limited population density which were “used to prevent people of color from living in certain neighborhoods.”

Along with the argument that “home rule” authority may inhibit affordable housing, the commission offers a carrot, recommending that any new state housing mandates be linked with technical and financial assistance to implement them.

Another incentive recommended was creating a three-year program through which communities would review their land use regulations and then adopt changes that promote affordable housing. A financial reward would be issued to complying communities.


Among the report’s recommendations are that accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, be allowed in all zoning districts that allow single-family homes. An ADU might be an apartment attached to a single-family home or a cottage in the backyard of that home. Such units might be rented by younger people or single seniors.

Also recommended is eliminating single-family zoning in all residential zones so that up to four residential units would be allowed on a single lot. That provision would be guided by septic and drinking water availability.
The commission recommends prohibiting municipal growth caps, which limit the number of construction permits that may be issued.

Creating density “bonuses” was recommended for all residential zones in Maine, allowing low- to middle-income projects 2.5 times the density of the established rules in that district. Similarly, the commission recommended communities identify areas where multi-family housing is permitted with limited regulatory barriers.

A final recommendation calls for creating a state-level appeals board to review affordable housing projects denied at the local level.