A sketch of one of the houses proposed for a Habitat for Humanity development on Talbot Avenue in Rockland (Photo Courtesy Midcoast Habitat for Humanity)
A sketch of one of the houses proposed for a Habitat for Humanity development on Talbot Avenue in Rockland (Photo Courtesy Midcoast Habitat for Humanity)

The Knox County Homeless Coalition has been busy. First, with Habitat for Humanity, they are moving forward with their proposal for an affordable housing community development project on Talbot Avenue in Rockland. The project has garnered a seemingly-large (or maybe just loud) local outcry. KCHC also has an ambitious proposal to buy a former medical complex in Rockport to provide more services, and 30 housing units for the unhoused. In October 2020, they opened an Independent Living Program for youth who are emancipated minors or between 18 and 21 and homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Their other youth program, The Landing Place in Rockland, is now back to having backyard activities “in full swing” and also providing “low barrier mental health support to youth.” The overnight emergency shelter plan is still on hold, but KCHC continues to provide emergency funds for local hotel stays. My questions were answered over email by KCHC Director of Development Becca Gildred; Assistant Director of Social Services Nate Cushman; Executive Director Stephanie Primm; and Tia Anderson, executive director of Midcoast Habitat for Humanity.

Becca: A recent AP article reports that more than 15 million people in U.S. households owe as much as $20 billion to their landlords, with 3.6 million in early July saying that they faced eviction in the next two months. Are you seeing concerns of this in the midcoast?

Becca Gildred: According to Maine Housing Coalition’s “Evictions in Maine February 2021” report, the increase in median [amount owed past due] jumped by 60% for Maine tenants impacted by the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19. We are receiving 3-5 calls a day from people who are or are about to be displaced.

Becca: You wrote that KCHC “helped an average of nearly one family a week move into permanent housing [during the pandemic] despite being in the tightest housing market we’ve seen in seven years.”

Nate Cushman: It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find affordable housing locally. Unfortunately, many families are needing to consider housing options away from the coast, in areas such as Lewiston, Augusta or Bangor. Even working families looking for market rate rentals are finding it nearly impossible to stay in the areas they were born and raised and feel an attachment to.

Becca: What are rents looking like now?

Nate Cushman: Rents have increased substantially in the last 16 months. Typically, they far exceed income-based voucher payment standards and as a result, we’ve partnered with Maine Housing to pilot a program (Rapid Rehousing), which gives us the flexibility to incentivize landlords by bridging some gaps. However, even with these resources it’s still a challenge to find housing.

Becca: Do you find some of the towns have tighter housing than others?

Nate Cushman: Anywhere along the coast is challenging. Even bordering towns are becoming less affordable and available.

Becca: At what point can someone reach out to KCHC for help? Must they be impoverished?

Nate Cushman: Individuals are eligible for services if they are or are about to become homeless within 30 days. We are always a resource for community members, regardless of their financial status.

Becca: Why was the Talbot Avenue project in Rockland necessary, and how many people will have stable housing as a result?

Becca Gildred/Tia Anderson: The Talbot Avenue project is significant in a number of ways. First, it will offer safe, stable, affordable housing for 35-55 people (presuming one person each in the eight smalls, 2-4 in a 2BR duplex side, 3-5 in a 3BR duplex side, 3-5 in each of four Habitat for Humanity houses). Secondly it represents a unique model of affordable housing development through collaboration, enabling thoughtful, efficient construction of housing geared toward healthy community development.

Becca: Do you think the project goes far enough? With a 10-acre parcel, I would have thought more people could be housed than the current proposal.

Becca Gildred/Tia Anderson: More people could be housed on 10 acres and any other developer that came in might have done so, but that would not allow us to preserve the wetlands in the way we plan and provide natural green space and buffers. One of the goals of this development is to make it a diverse neighborhood with single rentals, family rentals and home ownership opportunities. It is important that the youth that grow up here get to experience wildlife, green space and a strong sense of community.

Becca: Why did KCHC decide to work with Habitat for Humanity?

Becca Gildred: The missions of KCHC and Habitat are very similar and we each come to the table with different strengths. Whereas Habitat is in the construction business primarily, we are in the social services primarily, but there is a lot of overlap when you think about housing as health care, or housing as the hub that provides for greater social determinants of health and the idea that stable housing can break the cycle of poverty. With Talbot in particular, KCHC and Midcoast Habitat had presented the concept to Maine State Housing Authority and they recognized the potential for replication across the state and beyond as a solution to a rural housing crisis and offered seed money to help bring the concept to reality, as a pilot here in the Midcoast.

Becca: My understanding is that the reason the Talbot Avenue project needed to go through extra zoning approval is that the proposal includes smaller homes than allowed under current Rockland code, as well as smaller setbacks to cluster the homes closer together (apparently to minimize impact on neighboring lots). Why was it important for KCHC/Habitat to build these smaller homes?

Becca Gildred/Tia Anderson: We want the individuals moving into these units to be successful, and for a portion of the population this size is perfect. Living in a smaller home means a smaller carbon footprint with less electricity and heating oil needed, less furniture to have to acquire to make it feel like home and less area to have to maintain. It isn’t the solution for everyone, thus why we’re also planning a few 2BR & 3BR rentals.

Becca: Critics of the Talbot Avenue project have been outspoken in their concern that this project will harm or destroy animal habitat. How do you respond to that concern?

Becca Gildred: As mentioned before, the development has been carefully designed to preserve the wetlands and not densely develop this parcel. I personally live in a subdivision with wetlands about 20 feet from my window and as a mom, I’m delighted that my kids are so fortunate to be able to observe fireflies, foxes, birds, deer, turkeys and more. I am so happy that more kids will be able to grow up in an area near wetlands and with green spaces built into the neighborhood — it is one of the highlights of growing up in Maine!

Becca: Another critique being floated is the allegation that there was a previous plan by Habitat for Humanity in Rockland that hasn’t yet been fully occupied or finished. Can you clarify what happened with Philbrick Commons?

Tia Anderson: Philbrick Commons was never intended to be completed by 2021. Philbrick Commons is a two-phase development of a pocket neighborhood. Each phase consists of 6 homes. Houses are sold to partner homeowners upon completion. Phase 1 will be completed and occupied by the end of 2021. Phase 2 has begun and several applicants are in the process of securing their homeownership opportunity. Due to the global pandemic that caused a loss of nearly 5,000 volunteer hours, the schedule has only been delayed by a couple of months. Due to the volunteer labor and homeowner labor that goes into each of the builds, a staggered build schedule is the best model for this type of development. Also, Philbrick is 100% homeownership options rather than a mix of small rentals, duplexes and homeownership options.

Becca: Is there anywhere else in Rockland that this could be placed?

Becca Gildred: The Talbot Avenue parcel offers walkability, a neighborhood environment, public water and sewer, as well as green space. There are additional opportunities for affordable housing throughout Knox County and they should be explored for the development of additional affordable housing to continue addressing our affordable housing crisis.

Becca: What are some other things you would like to clarify about the Talbot Avenue project?

Becca Gildred: Affordable housing is a community. It helps those in need of affordable housing but also benefits the local economy. Workforce housing, accessible, affordable, attainable — whatever name you put to it, it is necessary for a diverse population and a holistic, healthy community. We care about fireflies, foxes and families! Those opposing the development are passionate for their personal reasons and we are mission-driven organizations working to help our community and its residents. “Put it somewhere else” is not a solution to a problem.

Becca: Steve Betts reported in VillageSoup that Habitat will likely have its formal application submitted to the Planning Board by their October 5 meeting. What exactly are the next steps for the Talbot Avenue project?

Tia Anderson: A site visit, public hearing, preliminary approval first and then final approval. This process will take at least 3, possibly 4 meetings. We will follow the typical Subdivision Application process, submitting a complete application with all that is required.

Becca: How can people show support for the project?

Becca Gildred/Tia Anderson: Support at the council level, speaking up about the need for more affordable housing. Support local nonprofits that are providing basic human need support by making donations.

Becca: If someone wants to accept Section-8 Housing vouchers from their renters, what do they have to do?

Stephanie Primm: The landlord would have to fill out an application with Maine State Housing Authority and pass an inspection.

Becca: What can people do to support KCHC?

Stephanie Primm: The best thing that people in our community can do is to make a donation or set up a monthly recurring gift. The work we do is not cheap or easy. Because we look at each situation individually and craft, with each client, their own path to success, it cannot be automated or computerized. It is not one-size-fits-all and requires a significant amount of one-on-one work with numerous members of our team.

Homelessness here in the Midcoast is often hidden and misunderstood. About half the people we serve are children. If we can stabilize a family and provide positive childhood experiences as opposed to adverse childhood experiences of stress and uncertainty, that child has a much greater chance of breaking the cycle in the next generation. We provide services to individuals once they are housed, usually for a couple of years, because it is only once people have housing and food security that they are able to adequately focus on the other aspects of their life such as education, job skills, parenting, health goals and budgeting etc. that will help them sustain that independence and become contributing members of their communities.