HALLOWELL — Officials in Hallowell are taking steps to improve access to affordable housing in the city.
The City Council last Monday approved formation of the Hallowell Housing Committee, co-chaired by Councilors Maureen AuCoin and Kate Dufour.
The group is being asked to identify the city’s housing needs and resources, and report back to the City Council within a year.
AuCoin said establishing the committee was among her top goals at the beginning of the year, and she was motivated to do so after numerous residents reached out about housing troubles.
“Among other things, these challenges include dramatic rent increases, lack of available housing and conditions of the existing housing in terms of safety and sanitation,” AuCoin said. “Stability in housing is a foundation for every other aspect in life.”
Some of the committee’s strategies include determining how to ensure at least 10% of new residential development in Hallowell is affordable, developing a comprehensive vision for housing within city neighborhoods that focuses on reusing existing buildings and creating in-home work opportunities and creating incentives that encourage development of affordable housing.
The committee’s goals also include creating incentives and supporting partnerships with housing coalitions and state and federal organizations to address housing needs.
Officials have considered creating a housing committee for several months. Last year, a task force spent six months researching and surveying residents about inclusion, diversity, equity and access in Hallowell, and found access to housing was a considerable concern.
While they considered having the task force continue to address the issues discovered through its work, AuCoin suggested creating a separate committee to tackle housing concerns.
The issue was raised recently when Hydeout at the Wharf, a dive bar, music venue and Hallowell mainstay for 40 years, moved to Augusta after the property owner increased the rent and refused to renew the lease.
During discussion about Hydeout at the Wharf, a resident said she owned an apartment above the bar for about seven years and despite assurances that evictions would not occur, she and nine other were later removed from their apartments, resulting in all of her friends moving to different communities.
Mayor George Lapointe said residents also commented on the lack of affordable housing after a $2.5 million, six-condominium development was approved for Water Street.
“It’s a general issue for people, the impacts of increasing housing costs overall,” Lapointe said. “It’s just been growing.”
Lapointe said the committee is expected to make recommendations that include costs and specific methods of implementation.
“We’ve had lots of discussion about people being priced out of the Hallowell market from both an ownership and a leasing perspective, so that’s an issue,” Lapointe said. “We hope that the committee will explore what issues are most pertinent and what we can do about them.”
Dufour said while availability, affordability and quality of housing have been issues for years in Maine and across the country, matters have worsened recently as people began moving to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really set a new expectation, maybe only for the short term, that the housing in Maine was incredibly valuable,” she said. “And also, there was a realization that in some of the state’s largest communities, there was very little housing available to start off with.”
Dufour said if there are plans to build traditional affordable housing in Hallowell, construction would have to be close to downtown shops, businesses and other resources.
“We don’t have the grocery or department stores, but we do have a downtown, so getting people close to where they can access resources easily would be one of my goals,” she said. “It’s easier said than done, though, because our area doesn’t really have much with respect to metro or public transportation, so it’s a balancing act.”
The committee is also expected to explore a possible moratorium or restriction on short-term rentals. Dufour said such rentals limit the number of year-round units in the city.
“You can see it across the state,” she said. “It’s really having some impact on communities where homes, apartments or whatever the case may be have been available for a renter who wants to come in and live in town for a year, and now they’re off the market.”
With the committee only recently established, a first meeting has yet to be scheduled. Once meeting dates and times are established, members of the community are encouraged to participate and share their concerns, according to city officials.
“(Kate Dufour) and I will meet to outline agenda topics and reach out to the committee members to arrange meeting dates,” AuCoin said. “We are eager to get started on this.”