AUBURN — The City Council agreed in concept Monday to a six-month process to increase the available housing units in the city, starting with a look at form-based code requirements in the downtown.
According to officials, the process was initiated due to current real estate market conditions, which portray Auburn as one of the fastest-growing markets in Maine. But, like most of Maine, the city does not have the available housing supply to meet demand.
The council agreed Monday to begin the process by looking mostly at the downtown, with staff directed to look at form-based code and underutilized space in downtown buildings that could spur in-fill development and more housing units closer to existing services.
The discussion has already centered on the cost of housing development, and the impact more housing units could have on schools, and the police and fire departments.
Officials said Monday that a preliminary analysis shows that existing services can withstand a population growth of 6,000 residents. But, staff said, it must be determined where the city can best absorb new housing and growth.
Eric Cousens, deputy director of Economic and Community Development, said Monday that the housing growth discussion “wraps into” the upcoming process to update Auburn’s comprehensive plan.
In anticipation, Geographic Information Systems specialist Rosemary Mosher created a dashboard for officials and the public that allows users to look at various types of housing units in the city, including how many are in each school district, police beat, and more.
“We’re hoping by breaking it down by unit types, we can understand where we have a capacity to handle new units,” Cousens said.
The dashboard breaks down the 10-year average enrollment and peak years for each school, but does not yet show any kind of estimated capacity for schools, which could be a central question as the process continues.
As of now, the figures show there are 0.33 school-aged children per housing unit in the city.
Cousens told the council that after looking at the initial numbers, he believes “there’s a lot of room for growth in Auburn.”
Mayor Jason Levesque said that if market conditions continue, Auburn should be poised to capitalize on both home buyers and commercial developers looking outside southern Maine.
He said one concern with the recent market boom is the low inventory of available homes.
Last month, multiple Auburn-based real estate agents told the Sun Journal that homes in Auburn are being sold in a matter of days, and for more than asking price, and that an important piece of the issue is that there are fewer homes on the market.
The limited number of homes on the market raises the possibility of home ownership becoming unattainable for potential first-time home buyers, seniors looking to downsize, or those on lower incomes — an issue familiar to southern Maine.
“I don’t believe average incomes are rising at the same rates of home prices,” Levesque said Monday. “Are we making it unattainable for average people?”
The initial work from city staff will also look at the potential to create secondary dwelling units on properties, as well as “back lots,” which can allow a parcel to subdivide without the proper road frontage.
Cousens said he anticipates staff can have some of the framework laid out by winter, with the form-based code considerations taking into the spring.
City Manager Phil Crowell said the city will also conduct a “downtown housing inventory and scoring report” sometime late fall.
The six-month timeline was pushed by Levesque, who said it would be in line with the start of construction season.
“One could look at it as aggressive, but I think it’s functional,” he said.