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Affordable housing plan divides affluent Portland suburb

Sara Lennon (left) and Suzanne McGinn are opponents of a four story 49-unit affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Sara Lennon (left) and Suzanne McGinn are opponents of a four story 49-unit affordable housing project in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — Housing costs are soaring across southern Maine, driving families from the towns where they were raised, and bringing tensions to a boil as young residents and retirees struggle to compete against an influx of out-of-staters and well-off buyers.

That dynamic, which has intensified across the country during the pandemic, has unsettled quiet Cape Elizabeth, an affluent coastal community just south of Portland, where a proposal to build the town’s first affordable housing project in 50 years has pitted neighbor against neighbor and raised hard questions of who can afford to live here.

“This is a community of tremendous privilege and wealth, but there are other people in this town who are not well-off,” said Jamie Garvin, the Town Council chairman who supports the 49-unit project. “People are being priced out of the community they’ve lived in for a number of years.”

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On the other side of the debate is a large, organized contingent that dismisses the Dunham Court project as a half-measure for solving a complex, long-term problem. They have questions about who would live there, how they would be chosen, and why a four-story apartment complex — rising 10 feet above the town center’s height limit — should be built behind the Village Green.

“We want to do something better than what’s being offered on the table so far,” said Sara Lennon, a former town councilor who is a leader of an opposition group called Save Our Center. “This isn’t a plan. This is a knee-jerk reaction.”

Affordable housing projects often draw resistance from neighbors, an obstacle long blamed for slow housing production. But some critics say the Cape Elizabeth plan would fundamentally alter the center of town while doing little to help lower-income residents.

“I can’t wait to hear about all the benefits my family and small business in the Town Center of Cape Elizabeth will get for subsidizing a gigantic ‘low-income’ housing project across the street,” former state senator Cynthia Dill, a Democrat who ran for US Senate in 2012, wrote to the Town Council in June.

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Dill, who said the project will benefit investors rather than working families, also raised the prospect that empty-nesters might sell their homes, bank the proceeds, and use their limited income as retirees to qualify for the apartments.

“If serving ‘low-income’ clientele like Jeff Bezos is suddenly a community goal, shouldn’t all businesses that do so get a tax break?” Dill wrote.

The site sits about 300 feet off the road beside Town Hall. The police and fire stations are across the street, as well as the public schools and town library. The location is accessible and convenient, proponents say.

Nathan Szanton, a Portland developer behind the Dunham Court project, scoffed at the idea that the apartments would attract wealthy, older people who would squeeze out young families and seniors of more limited means.

What rich retiree would make an effort to live in a one-bedroom apartment with Formica countertops, a bland white refrigerator, and no track lighting, he asked. Szanton, whose company specializes in mixed-income rental housing, said he has been taken aback by the intensity of the opposition.

“It’s beyond me. It’s a beautiful property. It’s a great location,” said Szanton, who has partnered on the project with Bobby Monks, a prominent Cape Elizabeth resident and entrepreneur. “You’re asking why I’m getting so much opposition, and the answer is it beats the hell out of me.”

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Monks said he has watched the town, 5 miles from Portland, change since his youth from a place of fishermen and farmers to a gentrified, less economically diverse suburb. The median house price in Cape Elizabeth, population 9,300, is now $625,000.

“I don’t think we’ve had this much pushback to a project ever,” Monks said. “I think change is hard.”

More than a dozen public meetings over several months have been held so far on the project, which seeks four zoning amendments, including allowances for greater height, a larger building footprint, and waiving the need for commercial tenants on the first floor.

The Planning Board already has recommended they be approved. The issue has been forwarded to the Town Council, which has scheduled a public hearing for September. If the amendments pass the council, then the Planning Board again would be involved to review the actual project.

“We’ve been at this for a while,” Garvin said of the plan.

Thirty-nine of the project’s 49 units — 41 one-bedroom and eight two-bedroom apartments — would be set aside for households that make less than 60 percent of the area’s median income. That threshold works out to $42,000 for one person, $48,000 for two people, and $59,940 for three, according to the Maine State Housing Authority, which could be asked to provide some financing for the project.

The rents for those lower-income apartments would be $1,080 for one bedroom and $1,299 for two bedrooms, compared with $1,592 for what the state Housing Authority considers fair market rent for two bedrooms in greater Portland. The remaining 10 apartments at Dunham Court would be rented at market rate.

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Of the 151 homes sold in Cape Elizabeth in 2020, only 20 percent were considered affordable for the town’s median household income of $118,841, the state Housing Authority said.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, since 1995, and it seems to be as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Peter Merrill, the authority’s deputy director, said of the affordable housing crunch in Maine. The Section 8 federal housing program has a waiting list for about 24,000 units in the state, he said.

Merrill said he could not comment specifically on the Cape Elizabeth project, but said its location seems optimal.

“If you’re following smart growth tenets or following the standard comprehensive planning best practices, that is exactly where you would want to put the project,” Merrill said.

Lennon, the opposition organizer, said the town has not allowed enough citizen input on the project, which she said could stigmatize its apartment-dwellers in a town dominated by single-family homes.

Instead of building one large cluster of apartments, she said, the town should look for innovative ways to integrate affordable housing into established neighborhoods. Lennon is urging the council to convene a committee of housing specialists, from within and outside Cape Elizabeth, to study the issue and recommend other options.

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“I want a 20-year plan of how we do this,” Lennon said.

She and Suzanne McGinn, another organizer of Save Our Center, said they are prepared to seek a town referendum to block the project if the Town Council fails to do so. The pair rejected the notion that Dunham Court’s opponents are motivated by racial or class bias.

“We’re the opposite of that. We’re trying to make it better,” Lennon said. “People love to go after Cape as elitist and wealthy. We must be racist, right?”

Garvin, the Town Council chairman who backs the project, also dismissed accusations that opposition to the project is indicative of widespread bias.

“This town over the years has become privileged and well-off, and there are times like this when this issue comes up,” Garvin said. “That is not the situation in this case. It saddens me to hear that as a criticism.”

But the time has come, he said, to help make Cape Elizabeth affordable to more families.

“This is a great community. Who wouldn’t want to live here?” Garvin said. “It doesn’t help when people can’t live in the community where they work.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.