Gimme Shelter

There is no question that downtown Biddeford is going through a renaissance. From a run-down and neglected corridor of assorted and vacant mill buildings to one of the most desirable places for young people to live in southern Maine.

Suddenly, without warning, downtown Biddeford became hip.

Today, long-since abandoned textile mills in the downtown area have been redeveloped into high end housing stock, surrounded by small and eclectic restaurants, shops, a parking garage and a proposed downtown hotel with a rooftop pool.

How did this happen? And are there any drawbacks to this fast-paced revitalization of the city’s core: The Heart of Biddeford?

Let’s begin with the factors that began a little more than 10 years ago.

A group of citizens from both Biddeford and Saco became activists and they began pushing city leaders to close the controversial MERC facility, a downtown trash incinerator that served several surrounding communities but left its putrid stench in downtown Biddeford.

It took vision to close that plant because it was one of the city’s biggest taxpayers. That vision came into focus when Alan Casavant was elected to his first term as the city’s mayor.

Casavant pledged to close the plant and he won his first term by a healthy margin over incumbent Joanne Twomey, who said closing MERC would likely never happen and focused her attention instead on developing a racino on the outskirts of town.

(Disclosure) I was Casavant’s campaign manager.

Although closing MERC was likely the impetus of Biddeford’s revitalization, there were many other factors taking place.

First, rising real estate and rental values in Portland forced many residents to seek more affordable housing elsewhere. They could keep their Portland-based jobs with only a 20-minute commute from Biddeford.

Real estate developers saw a golden opportunity, and they began investing in neglected and crumbling mill buildings. More than a century ago, young workers from away flocked to Biddeford in search of jobs in the city’s textile and shoe mills.

Today, it is young renters and home-buyers flocking to Biddeford. For those already living in the downtown area, rental costs began to soar, forcing them out of the city to places like Sanford and Westbrook.

A classic example of gentrification.

Our house, in the middle of our street

Rising real-estate values have also had a significant effect on homeowners who have seen their property values climb at a phenomenal pace.

For example, Laura and I purchased a modest, working-class home not far away from the downtown area. Our neighborhood was created for the hundreds of baby-boomers returning from WWII and raising families.

We purchased this home in 2004. Today, based on real-estate comps in our neighborhood, our home has more than doubled in value. Yes, we made several improvements but not enough to explain such a dramatic increase.

Today, it is almost impossible for first-time homebuyers to find an affordable home for working-class families.

All of this may explain why there has been a lot of chatter on social media about establishing the concept of “rent-control” in Biddeford.

Let me be clear. Rent-control is a bad idea. Fostering the development of affordable housing, however, is a good idea. Relinquishing more power to government will likely stagnate growth and hinder new opportunities and investments.

While many people blame city leaders for the problem, their frustration is understandable but misplaced. Late last year, the city of Biddeford tackled the subject of affordable housing. Over the next five years, the city will work toward a goal of creating at least 90 units of affordable housing per year.

“This is a statewide issue especially in coastal communities,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “There are limitations on what the city can do regarding private developers. Our tool box is limited,” he said.

Casavant says that many once worn down and unsightly apartment buildings are now being renovated by earnest landlords who want to increase the value of their properties. “They (landlords and developers) have a right to recoup their investments in our community.”

According to Guy Gagnon of the Biddeford Housing Authority, his agency calculates Fair Market Rent for various apartments every year. “The rapid rise in rent prices has outpaced the standard averages,” Gagnon says. “The real problem is a basic economic principle of supply and demand. We need much more supply of all types of affordable rentals and homes in southern Maine before the curve can be bent back in the right direction.”

Gagnon agrees that goal will be hard to reach as long as the real estate market is continuing to rise and he is worried about the plight of existing and long-time residents.  “All these changes, improvements are great, fantastic and amazing,” he wrote on one of his Facebook posts. “It’s especially important to be able to keep our children from having to move away for affordable housing. It is very, very, very important that the change in buildings does not change the fabric of our community.”

I agree with Gagnon’s concerns, but as I said before: rent control will do little to nothing to solve the problem.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News site.

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