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Only Steps Forward New housing projects create questions, concerns, uncertainty

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

Over the last couple of weeks, the public discussion of new housing projects has led to a lot of questions, concerns and overall uncertainty about how these projects come to be, where and how they are voted on and why Auburn would support more housing being built at all.

For those not following in detail, one family housing project is proposed for Spring Street, near the historic Engine House, and another for Loring Avenue at the site of a historic farmhouse not far behind the Engine 2 Station.

While I can’t answer all of the concerns and questions I’ve heard in this space, I wanted to offer some thoughts and encourage residents to call or email me, their city councilor or city staff to weigh in. A community workshop with the city council and developers has been added to the schedule and will occur next Tuesday, September 6 to provide time to learn more and have a discussion as residents.

For background, every five years the city has to complete a strategic plan for how it would invest federal dollars targeted to create economic opportunity in our in-town neighborhoods and improve the overall quality of the housing in these areas. As part of that, a lot of data is pulled together about the quality of existing homes and apartments and how much of their income renters and home owners have to pay towards their housing expenses. While it can be dry reading, as we all try to move the city forward together, understanding how property owners and our neighbors work to make a living and pay the bills is important.

For example, did you know that since 2000, our in-town neighborhoods in Auburn have lost nearly 3% of their population and the rest of the city has been relatively flat. Nationally, and throughout New England, young professionals and seniors are moving in large numbers to cities. Auburn, and our sister city of Lewiston, should be working to attract and retain those residents.

Along with that loss of population, in the last decade, property values in those same in town neighborhoods have fallen by nearly 5%.  When you think that the city relies on property taxes to fund our essential services, the loss of value in our in-town neighborhoods—and a city and school budget that has not been flat for the last decade—creates a shift in share of tax burden to other residential neighborhoods and commercial areas of the city.

Citywide, Auburn has around 11,000 total housing units. For comparison, Lewiston has about 17,000. Of those units, the Auburn has worked with partners over the years to ensure that about 1,300 of them are available for targeted people like those with disabilities, senior citizens and families that are working and have lower incomes. That makes up about 12% of all the units. Again, by comparison, Lewiston totals about 17% of all units.

Of those dedicated to certain populations, over one-third of those units in Auburn are designated for seniors, a share that is 50% higher than Lewiston’s units committed to seniors.

On the other end of the spectrum, Auburn has only worked to secure one in every seven affordable rentals for families that are of lower incomes. In Lewiston, over one in every three units is available for families. As we learned from our neighborhood schools earlier this year, we are experiencing a very high rate of turnover for students during the school year, driven in part by families needing to re-locate due to issues with their apartments or their struggle to keep up with rents.

And the challenge isn’t just for renters. For many of our seniors and longtime residents who own older homes in Auburn, more than 35% are paying more than $600 a month for expenses, not counting their mortgage. Utilities, heat and property taxes create a real burden, especially for those on a fixed income.

For over a generation, the city has hired consultants to collect this kind of data, created a five year plan, brought it to the council and then repeated the process every five years. The loss of population in-town, the loss of property values and the rising tax burden elsewhere in the city has been evidence that the old way of doing things hasn’t worked.

As the Auburn City Council, city staff and neighborhoods look at these proposals, I encourage us to look at all aspects of how we try to grow our community and support residents in having quality housing. It doesn’t need to be an either/or, it can be a both/and.

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