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Updated: January 21, 2022

MEREDA 2022: Maine House speaker urges action on statewide affordable housing 'crisis'

man with beard standing next to podium on stage Courtesy / MEREDA Ryan Fecteau, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, focused on the need for affordable housing in Maine at the keynote address at the MEREDA real estate forecast conference.

Maine needs more housing of all kinds and especially affordable housing, Ryan Fecteau, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, said Thursday in Portland.

"There's a crunch, and we need to solve it," he said in his keynote address at the Maine Real Estate & Development Association's annual forecast conference, attended by hundreds in person at the Cross Insurance Arena and remotely.

Fecteau, D-Biddeford, was elected speaker in December 2020, becoming the youngest person to hold such a role in the United States and the first openly gay person to serve as speaker of the Maine House.

He grew up in affordable housing in Saco, raised by a mom who dropped out in ninth grade and worked in a low-income health care job. Fecteau, 29, shared some of his experience with attendees, including photos of the Ledges apartments where he grew up.

Had it not been for the opportunity to live there, he said, "I don't think I would be on this stage today." Having a place to call home, he said, meant a safe place to do homework and eat with the family, for example.

"That is the difference housing can make," providing stability and "the opportunity to work on everything else that happens in life," and all the things that inevitably go wrong for families living on the margins, he said.

The first member of his family to attend college, Fecteau ran for the Maine State Legislature in his last year at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He returned home to Maine on weekends to knock on doors before his election to the Maine House in 2014. 

Today, Fecteau is a renter in search of his first home, seeing a lot of listings like the former home of Gov. William King, the first governor of Maine, in Bath, currently listed at $825,000 on and $1 million on Zillow. The four-bedroom, 4,758-square-foot home includes its own chapel.

"This is not within the budget of most Mainers," Fecteau said. "I'm sorry, but castles are not realistic for many folks."

He also said that rental prices are beyond the reach of many Mainers as well, noting that there isn't a single county where a full-time worker earning minimum wage can afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.

"Maine is facing an affordable housing crisis," he told MEREDA conference attendees, noting that housing supply has not kept up with demand. To meet it, he said, Maine needs about 20,000 affordable units, and a goal to build 1,000 affordable units a year, especially given the recent boom in real estate prices.

More voices needed

On the policy front in Augusta, Fecteau referenced recommendations from the House Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions, a group he chairs with state Sen. Craig Hickman, D-Kennebec.

Among other things, the group recommended eliminating single-family zoning restrictions in all residential zones across Maine, and creating a state-level appeals board to review denials of affordable housing projects made at local level.

Fecteau said that while he expects tension with communities over having a state appeals board, such a body would give developers a second chance to show why a project makes sense for a community.

But Fecteau also told attendees that lawmakers cannot solve Maine's housing problem on their own. 

"We need your voices at the table as well," he said. "It can't just be a politician, because no one likes us anyway. It has to be you ... We need you to be a part of the conversation of how we solve the problem, because there are too many people depending on us."

Thursday's conference was sponsored by TD Bank, whose Maine president Larry Wold noted in introducing Fecteau that "the overlap between real estate development and politics has grown."

Wold also credited Fecteau with reaching across the aisle to support economic initiatives and critical bond financing.

Later during the event, MEREDA presented Fecteau with its 2022 Public Policy Award. On Friday, MEREDA Board President Joshua Fifield told Mainebiz that Fecteau's speech demonstrates his understanding of and commitment to the need for more housing in Maine.

"As public health, climate, infrastructure, and labor and wage concerns compete for priority recognition in the legislature, Speaker Fecteau has elevated housing as a core principle for public health and safety as well as economic growth and the long-term prosperity of Maine’s communities," said Fifield, a vice president and senior account executive with Portland-based Clark Insurance. "We appreciate his efforts in this work and hope to continue to be a part of the conversations to help solve Maine’s housing crisis."

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January 22, 2022

As long as home is a commodity instead of a right this will continue. As long as profit is the motivator instead of providing people with a safe, warm, clean place to live this is all just talk. I've asked three acquaintances in real estate what they plan to do to help make this industry more just. Their response was basically that it was out of their hands, but they'd happily help anyone who could afford it find a house. The utter lack of compassion for people impacted by this only confirmed how broken things are (all three of the folks profess to be progressive but apparently that only applies in theory not action).

I work full time and have lived in Portland for 30 years. If the place I rent is ever sold or if my landlord decides they want to convert my apartment to an Airbnb I would be forced to move elsewhere. There is no other rental I could afford here and certainly no home I could afford to buy. I would lose my Home (the capital H is intentional), not just the physical one, but all those non-tangible things that make a place feel like Home - having a sense of place, a connection to community, the people I care about, a job I love. My entire life would be upended because the town I call Home would be out of reach for me.

I have a lot of fear about the suffering we are going to see in the next decade as people who can afford to flee areas being impacted by climate change. We've seen a preview of what will happen with what has happened with Covid. We need to act, but we won't...sadly Amarica no longer seems capable of caring.

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