Thursday, September 29, 2005

Editorial: Helping with housing

Published in the Current

(Sep 29, 2005): One Scarborough woman has been working to relocate Gulf Coast residents to Maine, recognizing that those who needed help paying for housing before Hurricane Katrina are even more in need now.

And another Scarborough woman is coordinating volunteers giving a Wells lobsterman a new home because his is in poor repair. Read more about them and their efforts on Page 1.

Both of these are worthy efforts, and we should be proud that people in our communities are helping with them. But they should not overshadow a similar problem right here at home: Affordable housing is hard to find in Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, and is getting even more scarce all the time.

There are a few projects, including Brickhill in South Portland and the Chamberlain brothers’ proposal for their property in Dunstan, which could help the situation. But even as they move forward, market forces are pushing housing prices higher.

Driving around our three communities over the past few weeks, I’ve seen several large, nice houses going up. Two of them, medium-sized homes on relatively small pieces of land just off Highland Avenue in South Portland, now have a big sign out front: “Starting at $425,000.”

The others have more modest signs, but are no more affordably priced for lack of a big ad.

Housing prices are outstripping increases in personal income. From 2000 to 2004, Maine’s per capita personal income grew 7.3 percent, according to the Maine Department of Labor. But in just the past 12 months, Maine’s housing price index rose 13 percent, according to the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight. Even median home prices, as announced by the Maine Association of Realtors Wednesday, rose 7.7 percent.

Developers and landowners have a right to make money from their investments. But following present practices, they risk saturating the market, reaching a point where they are building homes nobody can afford.

It would be better for everyone if they found a balance, building expensive homes for those who can afford them – and they exist – while building smaller, less expensive homes as well.

Many of the developers working on local projects, including the Chamberlains and Brickhill’s Richard Berman, are local residents, who can experience the value of the communities they help create.

We are lucky in this: Many communities around the country are in the hands of absentee developers, who have little reason to care about anything but the almighty dollar.

As Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough review their comprehensive plans, and South Portland looks at neighborhood plans for Mill Creek and Knightville, leaders and community members should look closely at what they can do to promote the development of affordable housing.

They should explore ways to create incentives for developers to diversify housing, such as exempting affordable housing units from school or other impact fees, often assessed to offset the expenses a town will incur as a result of increased population. They could also exempt affordable housing from caps on the number of new homes that can be built, or offer, as Scarborough did with a recent development in Oak Hill, permission to build more homes than traditional zoning would allow in exchange for some – or all – of those additional homes being made to qualify as affordable.

Our local developers, we hope, can be prevailed upon by social and economic forces to help our communities remain strong and diverse, with recent college graduates, young families, parents with school-age children, empty-nesters and retirees all finding places they can afford to call home.

Revals next week

In next week’s issue of the Current, we will begin publishing the results of Scarborough’s recent town-wide property revaluation. The full listing of properties in town, their owners and land and building values, will be published over two weeks, because of space constraints. Pick up the Current next week to get your copy.

Jeff Inglis, editor