Avesta unfamiliar with ‘local preference’

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

None of Avesta Housing’s 1,800 or so affordable apartments in Southern Maine give preference to local residents, Avesta President and Chief Executive Officer Dana Totman said Tuesday.

“Our experience is that people choose housing based on wanting to be in the community,” because of familial or work-related ties, she said, responding to news that Bridgton is considering drafting a local preference ordinance for future affordable housing projects.

As of Tuesday, Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz had not heard back from the town attorney regarding the legal risks of adopting such an ordinance, which was suggested by Community Development Committee member Mark Lopez at the Bridgton Board of Selectmen’s last meeting. In cases nationally, civil rights groups have challenged local preference ordinances for affordable housing, saying they violate fair housing laws and constitutional law.

Lopez said he had developed affordable housing projects in Massachusetts where local preference ordinances allowed 70% of the units to be targeted for local residents.

Totman said his agency would “comply with the law, if it’s legal,” should Bridgton adopt a local preference ordinance for affordable housing. He said the state Attorney General’s office may need to rule on the issue, adding that the Maine Human Rights Commission may also want to weigh in.

“It’s more of a human rights issue,” Totman said. The Fair Housing Act prohibits public housing agencies from denying housing to a person based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. “I’ve never heard of any (local preference ordinance) in the country that has restricted housing to a particular group,” said Totman.

Avesta has an option on the former Chapter 11 property on Main Street, in the heart of downtown Bridgton, and has received state and federal funding to build 21 units of subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled there. The agency had hoped to formally submit plans by now, but has held off to await outcome of town votes in June and November that would impact the project. The June vote would require the first floor of the project to be used for business, office or professional use, and the November vote will finalize a conditional approval by the Department of Environmental Protection to reduce minimum lot sizes in the Shoreland Zone.

“We’re checking with Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) this week to see if they can extend funding” for the low income tax credits awarded to the $4 million project, which also relies on federal Housing and Urban Development money,” said Totman. Avesta should have an answer in a couple of days, he said.

“It could be a deal breaker, and may not be a deal breaker. If (MSHA) says no, then that’s the end of it.” Totman said.

He said a state assessment of housing needs identified Bridgton and Scarborough as the two towns in Cumberland County where the need for affordable housing is the greatest. Other communities in Maine, such as South Berwick, Saco, Kennebunk and Windham, are actively vying for Avesta to develop affordable housing in their communities, he said.

“There are many, many towns that are very eager” for Avesta to develop new housing, Totman noted. “Bridgton is a very special town. We’re seeking to enhance that part of Main Street, and we’re getting much better at fitting in” with the architectural heritage that defines a community.

Totman said Avesta officials have been invited to meet soon with the Bridgton Economic Development Corporation, as suggested during a community meeting in Bridgton on April 26.

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