LEWISTON — City staff could soon be working through ordinance changes aimed at alleviating a regional housing shortage.

A biannual report from the city’s Housing Committee, reviewed Tuesday by the City Council, lays out several recommendations that members say could help prospective homeowners and renters navigate rising costs and a historically tight market.

One of the chief recommendations asks city staff to reconsider its ordinances that prohibit having more than one standalone building per lot. Allowing accessory dwellings — like in-law units or tiny homes — can create more affordable housing options, the committee said. It’s also a model that’s been initiated in other communities hoping to open up the housing market, including neighboring Auburn.

According to the report, multi-unit structures, like “triple-decker” buildings, are already permitted on a single lot if they are connected by common elements.

“Extending this permission to units that are free-standing would allow for the development of tiny homes or accessory dwelling units, which can create more affordable housing options, including opportunities for residents to age in place,” the report states.

City staff have also been approached in the past by people seeking to purchase a piece of land and put multiple tiny homes on it, the report said.

The committee’s recommendations also urge the city to dedicate resources to create and support more housing opportunities that help people transition out of homelessness and focus on ways to support local homebuyers.

Allie Smith, chair of the Housing Committee, said Tuesday that the recommendations summarize the last six months of work for the group, which talked to local real estate agents and housing experts about the current conditions.

Most of it was informed by the well-documented problems of low interest rates and low inventory driving a supply and demand issue. According to the report, realtors are seeing more buyers make cash offers, leading to concerns over locals being priced out of the city.

A committee recommendation urges the council to reinstate a down payment assistance program, as well as expand eligibility for rehabilitation programs to a broader range of incomes.

The report says the city’s rehabilitation loan program “leaves a narrow window of overlap” between individuals who can afford to purchase the housing available in Lewiston and those who qualify for the city’s program.

“Essentially, most people who can afford to buy the housing available in Lewiston make too much to qualify for the city’s rehabilitation program, and most people who qualify for the city’s rehabilitation program can’t afford to buy the housing available in Lewiston,” it said.

Smith said that committee members were “nervous” after hearing that buyers with a budget of around $180,000 are often advised by realtors to consider multi-family properties, “since the cash flow potential of the building can help buyers qualify for financing at a higher sales price.”

“The committee is concerned that low-budget buyers, including many first-time buyers, who take this advice may end up in over their head managing rental properties without adequate experience or support,” the report said.

Smith listed it as another reason the city should explore expanding its support programs.

Housing affordability for renters is also an issue.

According to the report, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Lewiston is currently $825 per month, a 10% increase in price over the past year. When the Sun Journal looked into the issue in September, many listings were more than $1,000 for a one-bedroom. As of 2020, fair market rent for a one-bedroom was $658.

As of this summer, there were less than five one-bedroom apartments available for rent in Lewiston, the committee said. Chris Kilmurry, executive director of the Lewiston Housing Authority, told the Sun Journal in September that the organization had a record number of Section 8 vouchers being used by individuals and families in the city.

Smith said one committee member resigned after having to move out of Lewiston. When looking at one apartment in Auburn, they were one of 10 people seeking showings for a one-bedroom unit, she said.

The committee also asked the council to support an initiative from Lewiston nonprofit Community Concepts that would offer mortgage financing to people of Islamic faith, as well as assess the city’s programs for accessibility.

Members of the City Council were generally supportive of the recommendations Tuesday, but Mayor Mark Cayer said he was “disappointed” that the report did not “go deeper,” with more specific actions for officials to follow. He said he’d also like to see more emphasis on market-rate housing and parking standards to create a more “complete” housing plan.

Officials said the pandemic highlighted the area’s homeless issue, which Councilor Stephanie Gelinas said has shown a big gap in the need for transitional housing for those looking to move from homelessness to permanent housing.

When asked by Smith what they are hearing from constituents, councilors said concerns about out of state money. Councilor Lee Clement said he recently had a neighbor sell his home who was “flabbergasted” by the offers that came in.

Cayer said it seems like the option of a “starter home” for first-time homebuyers now doesn’t seem to exist.

“If you picture it as a staircase, there’s a step missing,” Smith said.

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