Falmouth begins discussions about affordable housing

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FALMOUTH — Two developers are raising the possibility of building affordable housing in town for the first time in nearly six years.

Godfrey Wood, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, and Nathan Szanton, principal of the Portland-based Szanton Co., met with the Town Council and town staff last week to discuss visions for separate projects.

Theo Holtwijk, Falmouth’s director of long range planning, said the topic has been studied several times in the past, most recently in 2008 and 2009, when the council ultimately decided not to allow 48 units of workforce housing off Woods Road.

Now, Holtwijk said, the town is getting “its feet wet” in conversations with the developers, but is not close to making any decisions.

“The council felt that before it should deal with the specifics of any projects and going into the nitty-gritty details, that it would be useful to have sort of a general discussion about affordable housing,” he said.

While Wood and Szanton presented distinctive ideas on Jan. 12, Holtwijk said the town is not considering an either-or decision. Both developers, he said, could eventually come to the council with different proposals.

“It’s not that one project will meet and fulfill completely a particular need. There’s a lot of opportunities that satisfy the needs of different age groups, that satisfy the needs of different income levels,” he said.

Wood, a Falmouth resident who is married to Karen Wood, publisher of The Forecaster, said Habitat is interested in the same parcel of land behind the Police Department on Woods Road that was considered in 2009.

“Our project would be 25, single-family homes detached, and we wouldn’t be going into the back of the property, which is about another seven acres that abuts The Woodlands (Club),” Wood said. “We would leave (that) as open space and the town would keep it as open space.”

Wood said Habitat would also ask the town to contribute to the project.

“When the town’s ready to talk about something our request would merely be the donate the land to us, and we take all the risk of developing the property,” he said.

Wood said each home would be about 1,300 square feet, with three bedrooms and 1 1/2 bathrooms, similar to homes Habitat has built in Freeport. The average cost of one of these houses would be around $240,000, he said, which would be a monthly payment of $875 a month for a family making $35,000 or less annually.

That is far below the average home price in Falmouth, Wood said, which is more than $440,000.

“You own your own home for that amount of money every month,” he said. “It’s hard to find a rental anywhere around here that’s that inexpensive.”

Szanton said while his company does not have a site in mind, his proposal is for rental units along the Route 1 corridor “between the (Falmouth Shopping Center) at the north end and … Waldo’s convenience store in the south end.”

These units would have parking in the back and would resemble Main Street in Freeport or Congress Street in Portland, he said.

While Habitat would ask the town to donate the land off Woods Road, Szanton said he isn’t sure what, if anything, his company would ask from the town. He said it would depend on the “specifics of the project.”

The Szanton Co. specializes in developing mixed-income rental housing in or near downtowns, and according to its website has completed six apartment buildings in Maine and New Hampshire totaling 254 units. It currently is considering converting a former Bath public school to mixed-income housing.

Szanton said it would likely cost $160,000 per unit to build in Falmouth, which he said sounds like a lot until you consider that the project, with units between 600 and 900 square feet each, would have amenities houses typically don’t have, including a fitness center, a full sprinkler system, an elevator, and a community room. He said a one-bedroom unit would likely rent for around $700 a month, with heat, hot water, and parking included.

He said if the buildings were right on Route 1, then there would “absolutely” be ground-floor commercial space. However, if the buildings are off Route 1 in an area not frequented by retail customers, Szanton said they would probably put housing on the first floor.

“It would depend on the location,” he said.

Szanton added the units would be a mixture of market-rate housing, which is available to anyone, and affordable housing, which is restricted “to people whose incomes are below 60 percent of the area median income.” The maximum incomes allowed would vary from $32,000 for one person to $46,000 for a family of four.

Wood and Szanton both said there is a need for this type of housing in Falmouth. They said the town’s high cost of living requires people who may work in Falmouth to live outside of the town.

“We think that people that work there would prefer to live there and save on commuting and have a nice, efficient affordable home,” Wood said.

Szanton said affordable rental units would help diversify the town’s housing stock.

“There are a lot of people who would probably be very attracted to the ability to live in Falmouth, particularly if they work in Falmouth, if they could find a reasonably priced, good-quality rental,” Szanton said.

Holtwijk said the town understands housing costs in Falmouth are “relatively high,” and while he isn’t personally advocating more or less affordable housing, data shows Falmouth’s housing costs are a barrier to many prospective residents.

“We’re to help Falmouth residents and councilors understand what the options are,” he said, “and there is no one right answer to it.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.