Jason Levesque

The affordable housing crisis that Auburn and Maine are facing should not come as a shock to any of us; it’s certainly not a shock to me, or to our city council and staff.

We’ve seen it coming for four years. What might come as a surprise to many, is that unlike other municipal and state governments, we’ve focused on this issue, and we have made noticeable progress. The results are now being felt like an avalanche throughout our city.

To some, our decision-making might seem rash, ill-planned or without a full understanding of the problem. This is far from accurate, but it’s an understandable reaction, one that I am hoping will diminish with time, conversation, and education.

When I first ran for mayor four years ago, it quickly became clear that the steady growth taking place just 30 minutes to our south meant that Auburn — with our affordable homes, proximity to recreational opportunities and many attractive features — was going to experience a significant increase in demand for housing. It was equally clear that our housing supply was limited and, due to restrictive zoning, which creates artificial scarcity and expensive construction costs, wouldn’t keep up.

Naturally, the resulting imbalance has caused a drastic increase in price for both home purchase and rental, making home ownership in Auburn less attainable and just downright unaffordable.

I believe that when faced with a problem, you can do one of two things. You can ignore it, or you can tackle the problem head on. I chose the latter, despite knowing it would potentially be the most controversial. The process that I undertook — in phases and in partnership and collaboration with city staff and city council — was built on data, knowledge collection, creation and application of solutions, and measurement of results.

Data collection was an imperative step in the process. First and foremost, in 2018 and 2019 we created a strategic planning committee comprised of more than 100 residents, city staff, and community partners who worked tirelessly to develop a comprehensive strategy for education, downtown revitalization, natural resource protection, and safe and affordable housing. The resulting strategic plan is and will remain the guiding document for our work on many fronts.

We commissioned several studies about land use and zoning and had public presentations by numerous subject matter experts, such as Maine’s state economist, and professors from Georgetown University and Bates College.

There was also a cost-of-service analysis conducted by city staff based on historical data and sound projections that indicated that Auburn was underpopulated and could easily handle another 2,000 market rate housing units — another 6,000 people living in apartments, condos and single-family homes, spread out proportionally throughout our city. We were confident that this would help keep housing prices affordable and facilitate a new round of economic growth.

The best part? Our property taxes would decrease by 20%. Because when you “right-size” your city, you can actually lower taxes!

Next, we moved into the “solution” phase. We created a comprehensive plan review committee which conducted a complete revision of our land use policy, starting with applying form-based code (fancy term for allowing greater building flexibility) within our downtown, allowing in-law apartments, or secondary housing on the same lot throughout our city; removing restrictive parking requirements for commercial buildings; waiving building and rehabilitation permit fees for veterans; and a dozen more “tweaks” that, when put together, make building homes in Auburn easier and cheaper than anywhere else in Maine.

The most outwardly noticeable part of our plan is happening right now. New market rate apartments going up downtown, older homes being rehabilitated, new retail and commercial construction announced weekly … and there is much more to come in the months ahead.

Did I mention that while most of this work was happening, we also faced a pandemic? COVID-19 quickly turned our looming affordable housing crisis into a reality, not just for Auburn but for all of Maine. Thankfully we never lost sight of the issue, and together, we worked the problem (as publicly as the pandemic would allow).

So, even though there were hundreds of articles written, countless TV interviews given, in-person and online public forums, and city-wide communications created and distributed, some of our work was “drowned out” by the millions of news pieces concerning COVID-19.

I’m not complaining — that information saved lives. But now that the results of four years of work done by so many people is visible, it seems to the average citizen that we are rushing and making hasty decisions. Please know that is not the case.

I wish I could sit down with every one of the 25,000 residents of Auburn and explain the process, answer questions, and alleviate concerns. But I can’t.

Just know that your elected representatives — who are supported by a great staff — are committed to doing this work; to making these decisions; to growing Auburn in a thoughtful, deliberate way — so you can focus on your family and business. We take that obligation seriously, and have and will continue to put a maximum amount of effort into making Auburn the best city in New England.

I believe that we’re almost there …

Jason J. Levesque is the mayor of Auburn.


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