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June 13, 2018

Multi-family development necessary, MEREDA audience told

Photo / Maureen Milliken Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a Cambridge, Mass., pro-housing and smart growth advocate, speaks at a Bangor MEREDA breakfast Tuesday.

BANGOR — More affordable multi-family development in Maine is necessary, but municipalities, developers and residents will have to work together on ways to make it happen, those attending a Maine Real Estate & Development Association breakfast were told Tuesday.

Featured speakers were Robert Frank, a principal with WBRC Architects-Engineers, and Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a Cambridge, Mass., pro-housing and smart growth advocate.

The topic was “Yes in My Backyard: Why Development is Good,” and the focus was on the challenges to multi-family development, both historically and now.

Frank said there is multi-family development occurring in Maine, but it’s small in size and in many cases the developer is also the owner. It’s difficult in Maine for developers to build multi-family housing cheaply enough for it to be affordable, particularly in areas that limit building height. When the number of units is limited, the units are more expensive to build, and, by consequence, to rent or sell.

“We have to get creative,” Frank said.

He cited a proposed multi-unit development several years ago in Belfast in which the developer was asked to keep a farm field open, squeezing the development. To meet the challenge, the design was configured, changing placement of garages and driveways. “With the original layout, it would have been 100 units, but we were able to get it up to 147,” Frank said.

He said that when developers, as well as those making decisions about developments, can visualize how creative measures will work and what they’ll achieve, it leads to solutions.

Kanson-Benanav, who spoke before Frank, said that the creation of new homes should be supported and encouraged, and changes to zoning and planning should be looked at for solutions.

Zoning and other restrictions on housing development, including some government loan programs, were designed decades ago to segregate communities, he said. The repercussions being felt now are that restrictions hamper housing expansion, there is often backlash against housing that people can afford and that historic low-income housing is often an “island,” not near schools and jobs.

There is also a negative environmental impact to suburban development — cars have to be used to get places and are the main cause of carbon emissions; open space and farmland is developed rather than buffering the environment or being productive.

He’s chairman of A Better Cambridge, a YIMBY organization that advocates for more affordable housing in the Boston area. He said that by 2040, greater Boston will need 435,000 more homes.

Though there’s been a recent wave of development in the past few years, 50% of the multi-family building permits in greater Boston were in five or six communities.

“The existing residents tend to be of low incomes, and have to compete with newcomers, who have higher incomes,” he said.

“There’s always a strong backlash against multi-family development,” he said. “There’s a consistent message against new people moving to a community.”

The YIMBY movement has grown in the Boston area because of the lack of affordable housing.

He said that while his focus is on the Boston area, the lessons translate to Maine.

“So much of this is about showing up,” he said. “Only by showing up to we have the means to create the housing we need in our communities.”

After the event, Frank said he’s not seeing organized YIMBY groups in Maine. “What I do see is communitients and proponents of development working together to avoid NIMBY. “People don’t want change, there’s a fear of change,” he said. “What they have to do is visualize what that change will look like.”

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