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January 15, 2019

Report: Bangor housing crisis affects economic development

An interim report of the Bangor Housing Work Group has found that Bangor is in the midst of a housing crisis that negatively affects workforce attraction and retention and overall economic development, and poses health issues.

Over the last four months, the city engaged a work group to focus on the issue of quality affordable housing in the city and the region. The work group includes representatives from the public and private sectors, including individuals, landlords, renters, housing developers, nonprofit agencies, and the public. The final session was held Monday to present recommendations to the Bangor City Council for local programs or policies with the potential to address the affordable housing shortage.

The report outlines data that have contributed to the lack of house, including a stagnant population size and relatively stagnant wages since the recession, a comparatively low median annual income ($36,000 for potential homeowners), rising rents in a market with multiple subsidy options, competitive opportunities for development and new housing in neighboring communities, as well as a comparatively old housing stock with a significant amount that is not good quality.

"Housing is a workforce and a development issue and it's a detriment to health," Lauren Mitchell, an independent consultant who works with Starboard Leadership Consulting in Bangor, told the council at the hearing.

Mitchell said that housing issues are expected to grow because of factors like the growing population of homeless and elderly people.

"There's a desirable 20-something demographic in Bangor, more so than in Penobscot County, that are early in the workforce and wanting to buy and rent homes," she said. "They're the new lawyers, teachers, medical residents, police officers" struggling to buy housing."

She said there are also quality concerns around Bangor's housing stock.

"It's not just about the curb appeal," Mitchell said. "Bangor has an aging housing stock. That requires ongoing maintenance and investment" to keep the stock at high quality and safe from threats like lead and mold.

"There is a lack of accountability and tracking around rental properties for maintaining quality," she added.

Councilor Ben Sprague said the council has "a whole had particular interest in this."

He said housing expansion has occurred in the last decade in communities around Bangor, like Hampden and Hermon. Those communities, he said, have lower property tax rates that are attractive for homebuyers, but they also benefit from being near the services that Bangor provides through its higher tax rate.

"The housing concerns are connected with the revenue stream and how different cities and towns pay for services," Sprague said. "I don't think it's a surprise that the most residential growth has been in communities with the lowest mill rates that, I think you could argue, benefit from being located in a service center region" without having to necessarily have to pay for some of the services.

Sprague said he'd like the report and its recommendations communicated to surrounding communities in a collaborative manner, without being confrontational.

Councilor David Nealley said that Bangor "should take some credit for the vast expansion of housing in Hermon, Hampden and some of the outlying areas."

"And not just because Bangor is an older community with an older housing stock and has less available land," he said. "When I look at Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth, Cumberland, Gray, Freeport — all l those places have such tremendous growth. They have tremendous growth because the Portland engine keeps producing. And to some extent, that's why Hermon, Hampden and the surrounding area have had growth."

In Bangor, it's more difficult to find the right stock, he said, adding that it's partly attributable to the reluctance of past planning boards to allow single-family homes to be converted to multi-family.

"We have to look at being more flexible about older housing stock and how we can be more lenient in parts of town about converting to multi-housing," he said.

Nealley added that the city should also study the potential for great growth in the condominium market.

Short-term steps recommended

According to the interim report, "Bangor's housing market, particularly for rentals, has extensive, serious problems. The poor condition and quality of too many properties is unattractive to potential buyers and renters and in some cases has made many units abysmal and unsafe. There are also serious issues of unaffordability. For rental properties, neglect from absentee-landlords has compounded the issue."

Over time, the proliferation of dilapidated structures chopped into multiple apartments has had serious negative consequences for those seeking safe, structurally sound housing, and also for the quality of neighborhoods with a mix of single-family homes and multi-unit residential buildings, the report says.

"Meanwhile, there is a lack of quality workforce housing to attract young professionals," the report says. "These problems have been cumulative, over decades, and have created an environment that is unacceptable for a community, like Bangor, that values quality of life and livable housing in desirable neighborhoods."

The report identifies short-term steps the city can take, including:

  • Launch a rental registry and inspection program to inventory and track the number, size and quality of city rental units.
  • Address the worst examples of rental housing neglect and aggressively enforce code standards.
  • Adjust the CDBG program to incentivize rehab of rental units and vacant single-family homes.
  • Develop a housing production plan for different types of housing, including home ownership and rentals, to serve as a call to action and initial feasibility analysis for potential developers.
  • Assess and revise zoning and development standards to reflect not only current uses, but to encourage density in development, prioritize transit-oriented development and minimize barriers to affordable improvement of housing stock.

The report also identifies short-term steps other stakeholders can take:

  • Increase supportive housing services for vulnerable populations.
  • Convene representatives of Bangor's nonprofit groups that deal with housing the disadvantaged, poor and vulnerable.
  • Use workforce housing as an economic development tool, and identify steps employers can take to increase the number of units needed for current and future employees.

Long-term steps for all stakeholders include:

  • Review subsidy programs and impacts
  • Choose priority areas/villages in the city to pilot initiatives
  • Apply evidence-based land development and code tools from other communities.

To carry the work forward, the city will engage with a smaller, multi-disciplinary segment of the Housing Work Group to develop implementation steps, the report says.

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