Affordable housing strategies aired at Camden Rotary Club

Sat, 05/01/2021 - 7:30pm

Guest speaker Joe Cloutier shared his perspective as a developer of affordable workforce housing solutions during a recent Camden Rotary Club meeting.

Cloutier, who co-founded Realty Resources Group and has created numerous workforce housing communities in New England, addressed the club as part of its efforts to identify potential solutions to local economic challenges. His presentation was the eighth in a monthly series on topics including demographics, vocational training, workforce skills gaps, and childcare needs. In doing so, the club hopes to generate collaboration among leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to improve the region’s economic vitality.

Cloutier began his talk by reinforcing the need for housing that working families can afford: “A fundamental question that communities face is whether affordable housing is needed in the community. I unequivocally know and believe that it is critically important.” He emphasized the value of having medical professionals, public safety officials and other workers live near their work and mentioned the added strength that economic, educational, and ethnic bring to a community.

“I think building a substantial coalition that’s actively engaged in affordable housing is a very important first step,” said Cloutier. He added that a coalition should include affordable housing groups, home builders, business owners, the Chamber of Commerce, town government, service organizations, and other stakeholders. The coalition could work in conjunction with a community land trust and perhaps seek grant funding to support new development.

Asked what he thinks the coalition’s priorities should be, Cloutier said that working with a town to create an affordable housing overlay zone should come first: “That’s the vehicle that will reduce land costs, construction costs, and permitting issues. Second I think, is working with our congressional delegation about making some changes in the Maine State Housing Authority’s (MSHA) subdivision program and providing more resources.” Finally, he called for talking with senators and representatives in Washington about more resources for affordable housing in general. “That hasn’t been done since the seventies and eighties. There’s not a big powerful lobby in Washington for affordable housing. I don’t know why.”

Cloutier portrayed affordable housing overlay zones as potential solutions for coastal towns with high land values. Overlay zones allow higher density than what is currently allowed, making it possible to intersperse affordable homes within developed areas. He noted that new developments often must include several affordable housing units to be approved in some states, such as Massachusetts. Overlay zones are often subsidized by public tax increment financing (TIF) for redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community improvement projects. There would be no charges for connection fees, sewer permits, and impact fees. 

He indicated that overlay zoning is less expensive and laborious than contract zoning, which applies to a specific development proposal. “Contract zoning takes a lot of time and money getting lawyers and engineers involved, whereas an affordable housing overlay zone could work very easily and much less expensively,” Cloutier said.

But even with favorable zoning, today’s costs of labor and materials make it difficult to build homes for purchase at affordable prices. Community Development Block Grants and MSHA’s subdivision Program, which provides loans and grants for up to $400,000, enable the development of up to 20 homes for families of two with incomes of up to $76,000 or $80,000 for four. However, the cost per home must not exceed $220,000, including infrastructure, landscaping, and the house itself.

“With the median listing prices for homes in Camden at $429,000 and the cost of materials increasing 15% in the past year, building a home for under $220,000 is an incredible challenge,” said Cloutier. He added that lobbying for higher caps on the cost of these houses could help, as could considering different construction techniques. Manufactured housing would be less expensive than stick-built housing, so that is an avenue worth exploring. And 3D printing is on the horizon as a future possibility, producing the same effect as concrete that looks like traditional wood construction. 

Infrastructure costs are another concern. Building within high-density areas with existing water and sewage systems eases this issue. There is the expense in extending water and sewage lines but connecting to existing infrastructure costs far less than starting from scratch. Cloutier added that projects in smaller communities might require septic systems and wells, a more complex process than building close to existing infrastructure.

Means of making housing affordable include tax credits for family housing and MSHA’s first-home buyer program provides a 3.4%, 30-year mortgage on a $220,000 house for qualified buyers. Also, the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act(CRA) incentivizes banks to offer favorable financing for affordable housing.

Addressing resistance to affordable housing developments, Cloutier reiterated the benefits of providing homes for workers to purchase. He said that business owners who oppose these developments often change their minds when recognizing the value of enabling their employees to live within the community. And when a house is on fire, homeowners appreciate the proximity of firefighters and other public safety workers.

“Most of the opposition comes from a misunderstanding of the housing we are proposing,” Cloutier said. “You can’t get over the problem if you’re locating next to a neighborhood that doesn’t want you. It’s typical nimbyism (not in my backyard) or NOPES (not on planet earth). “But I think education and looking at what’s been done in town can help. Camden has some affordable housing including many apartments that serve a tremendous, good purpose in the community.”

A recording of Cloutier’s talk is available from the club’s library of recorded presentations at Recordings and handouts from previous talks and announcements of future speakers can also be found on the website.

The club welcomes visitors at its weekly meetings, which take place Tuesdays at noon on Zoom. Anyone who would like to attend can obtain connection details from Stephanie Griffin: