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Scarborough grapples with affordable housing

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Scarborough grapples with affordable housing

SCARBOROUGH —The Scarborough Housing Alliance is concerned that home prices are out of reach for many of those who work for or in the town.

Even affordable units, which builders are required to construct to gain a density bonus incentive, are based on too high an income level, alliance member Suzanne Foley-Ferguson said.

According to the Maine State Housing Authority, Scarborough's median home price in 2008 was $299,000 and its median income was $70,582. But an income of about $95,000 is needed to afford a median-priced home, according to the state's affordability index. A family making the median income would be able to afford a home worth no more than about $222,000.

In Scarborough, 4,851 households, or 65.8 percent of the town's total households, are unable to afford the median home price, according to the index.

"We want to raise awareness of people that even in this economy, prices of houses are so out of reach for people – even those who work for the town," Foley-Ferguson said.

The town's approach to affordable housing is "still something very much evolving," Town Manager Tom Hall said. Two approved subdivisions, Dunstan Crossing and Eastern Village, will include some affordable units in exchange for building more units per acre. The first affordable unit at Dunstan will be on the market soon; Construction on the Eastern Village development hasn't started.

The affordable units will be offered at a reduced price using 120 percent of the affordability index, equivalent to a household earning $81,120. With the Dunstan two-bedroom units going for $310,000, the town will hold a soft second mortgage on the affordable units to allow qualified buyers to purchase them for $265,000.

Under the town's guidelines, at the time of resale, the owners would pay back the $45,000 mortgage amount to the town, along with a percentage of any profit from the sale. The units would continue to be maintained as affordable, and any subsequent buyer would have to qualify.

Though some details are still to be determined, for the first 45 days, eligible units would be offered first to existing residents of the town, former students or graduates of Scarborough High School, children or parents of town residents and/or employees of the town. Under a second tier, Scarborough business owners who grew up in town would also be eligible within the 45-day period.

But Foley-Ferguson said the discount is not enough to help many firefighters, police officers or other employees who might like to live in Scarborough. For a house to be affordable to those earning the Scarborough median income, it would have to be priced below $200,000, according to research by the alliance.

Alliance member Mary Davis, who called affordable housing a puzzle requiring all the right pieces in order to function, said when people don't necessarily understand the meaning and intent of  "affordable housing."

"It's good every once in a while to take a look at those numbers and put a face on actual families – people in the workforce that fit in those parameters – and ask what's your target, your goal, what are you trying to accomplish," she said.

Hall, the town manager, said to "be serious" about providing affordable options, Scarborough must consider reducing the median family income index. He said he also recognizes the need for more options for what he prefers to call "workforce housing."

"The workforce piece is a great way of categorizing it," he said. "What I've been able to discern is that it's about that workforce piece – insuring and creating socio-economic and demographic diversity in town. It's all related – if there are not enough places for people to live, it's hard to create the jobs."

Hall said he prefers the idea of workforce housing being interspersed with other housing, with no outward difference in appearance to avoid labeling. He said he looks forward to creating other opportunities for affordable housing, and would like to select a third-party administrator with expertise in housing issues to assist the town.

"There are good examples close to us – we have some great talent on the alliance," Hall said.

He said the town must take a "strong leadership position" and added that he's speaking with Habitat for Humanity about the possibility of building some homes off Broadturn Road on land that the town acquired from the Maine Turnpike Authority.

"I know the committee wants to get into other initiatives," Hall said.
"The challenge to the alliance is there's no money to support this."

Hall said he would also like to see the town invest in more options for workforce housing by sending a referendum question to voters. Even in this economy, he said, he believes people might approve a provision that would bring greater diversity to Scarborough.

"For me, ensuring that diversity in citizenry is vital," he said. "If we're all the same in town, it doesn't make for a very interesting place to live."

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.