AUBURN — During his biennial “State of the City” address Tuesday, Mayor Jason Levesque said Auburn should enact policies that encourage a dramatic increase in housing development as a way to lower taxes and respond to a housing shortage.

In a 15-minute prerecorded message, he said an analysis from city staff has shown Auburn can accommodate 2,000 new single-family homes, or an additional 6,000 residents over the next five to seven years.

“I truly believe that the best and most efficient solution to our problems is to promote growth, encourage and allow for more investment, specifically, the construction and sale of market rate homes,” he said.

Prior to Tuesday’s council meeting, Levesque said he’d like the city to look at its zoning and find ways to encourage single-family homes by decreasing minimum road frontages and lot sizes.

In the speech, he called on city councilors to propose and approve changes to the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinances, to make them “more equitable for all residents, promoting growth and investment.”

He said the city should revisit “our archaic, protectionist and — in my opinion — biased zoning ordinances,” and he asked councilors to “make it a goal to revise our regulations, stripping all but those that are imperative for the health and safety of those that live, work and play in our city.”

The speech attempted to frame 2020 as a year of record economic growth in Auburn despite the pandemic. But he said hefty challenges remain, including generational poverty, food insecurity, a lack of affordable and equitable housing, and an above-average property tax rate.

That’s on top of the current pandemic.

But Auburn, like the rest of Maine, is in the middle of an unprecedented housing market boom that has seen average home prices balloon. Local real estate agents have told the Sun Journal that the region suffers from a lack of affordable housing, and that the current market is pricing out many first-time homebuyers.

In September, the City Council agreed in concept to a six-month process to increase the available housing units in the city, a decision driven by the current housing market.

Levesque argued Tuesday that with a population of 24,000 spread out over nearly 70 square miles — an area larger than Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, and Cape Elizabeth combined — “we have the space, the perfect location within the state, and the infrastructure to comfortably handle an additional 2,000 new market-rate homes.”

He said the city’s zoning has created “artificial scarcity” in housing, driving prices up due to limited supply and increased demand. He told the Sun Journal that Auburn’s policies and tax rate have led to people building or moving to homes in neighboring towns.

“Who are we to pick those that can or can’t raise their families here because we continue to promote unfair zoning ordinances, when we have the ability to change them,” he said.

Levesque called on the council to work toward a budget that requires no increase to “our already high property tax rate.” He believes that with the increased housing, property taxes will decrease by 20%.

“We are already paying for and have the infrastructure, and public safety staff to handle this influx of residents,” he said.

The issue of housing became intertwined with the lengthy debate over Auburn’s large agricultural zone in 2019, prior to officials approving updates to the zone, which accounts for nearly half of the city’s land. Many argued that changing the zoning laws too drastically would lead to the loss of valuable agricultural land that is disappearing across the state.

Levesque said Tuesday that he doesn’t want the city to simply rezone a section of land to set aside for housing, but rather look at ways to encourage in-fill development.

“These will not be faceless houses, these will be homes with real, hardworking people, raising families and building memories,” he said in the address. “I want us to embrace this solution and stop making excuses for our lack of action … We can balance our commitment to protect our environment with our desire to grow our downtown, and our residential and industrial base.”

His address also pointed to a year of economic growth, with new businesses such as Target, Chipotle and the Holy Donut announcing moves to the city. He said Auburn “will soon see over 1 million new square feet of industrial and retail development throughout the city.”

“You can’t miss the transformation when you drive around town these days,” he said.

Levesque also used the speech to thank local volunteer groups and small businesses, who he said have kept their doors open “despite the sometimes punitive and reactive restrictions you have endured.”


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