6 minute read

creative housing solutions

by laurie lamountain and thea hart

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Thea Hart This group came together in May “ of 2021, partially out of my own struggle to find adequate housing, through conversations with friends experiencing similar housing struggles, and through connections with folks at CEBE who had their own ideas stewing for a while about ‘eco-villages,’” says Thea Hart, Project Coordinator for the Norway Equitable Housing Cooperative (NEHC).

The core of NEHC is made up of Hart, four other local renters, and two supporting members at the Center for an EcologyBased Economy (CEBE) in Norway. They have been meeting twice a month since July 2021, and weekly since the beginning of this summer around a shared need and vision for equitable, energy efficient, inspired housing that meets standards that current rental housing and federally- and state-subsidized affordable housing do not.

“We also have a steering committee of local folks who advise our project—some do community work locally, live in local affordable housing, work in the neighborhood, and develop sustainable affordable housing elsewhere in our state. The steering committee and CEBE have really been instrumental in facilitating the development of this project. Renters rarely have the resources to do this alone,” says Hart.

This last point is an important one. The Rural Affordable Rental Housing Program (RARHP) from Maine Housing provided a great opportunity for NEHC when it opened an application period for funds to facilitate the development of affordable rental housing in late May of this year, but other developers were much quicker on the draw. In fact, as Hart points out, resident-developed projects are few and far between because those who are in need of quality, affordable housing rarely have the resources (time, energy, money, and connections) required to create it. While there’s the potential for the RARHP to have another round of funding, the group is in the meantime focusing efforts on preparing applications, crowd-funding, and seeking a private investor in the project. They are also considering applying to the Affordable Housing Program from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston that would only provide funding at the tail end of the project, unlike RARHP which would see the project all the way through.

“One of the issues we’re up against is needing pre-development funding (thousands of dollars) to pay architectural consultants, building engineers, and site planners to even be able to put together viable applications for funding programs like this. The RARHP was a first come-first serve program without much funding to begin with, and despite us being perfect candidates, the reality that we’re resident-driven, and not commercial developers, really put us at a disadvantage.”

The site they are looking to develop into 12 net-zero units split between two buildings is a half-acre lot in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of Main Street, Norway. The group feels it’s essential the cooperative is located within walking distance of Main Street to make it accessible to older and disabled renters, as well

Existing site

as those without vehicles. In mid-May of this year, they secured a 6-month agreement with the owners that they would not sell the property, allowing NEHC time to develop plans and secure funding. The project has the added advantage that it would replace dilapidated buildings currently onsite.

The design of the building has gone through several rounds of brainstorming with input from potential renters, members of the steering committee, and Bethel-based builder Maine Passive House. The plan is for a variety of studio, two-bedroom, family-sized, and accessible units, all designed for efficient use of space and energy and contained within two south-facing buildings. A separate building will house a shared laundry, storage area, a gathering and dining space, and industrial kitchen. Exterior plans include shared garden space, EV chargers, and bike storage.

The cooperative model NEHC is referencing is a limited-equity housing cooperative (Raise Op in Lewiston uses this model). Tenant-owners buy a member share in the corporation of the cooperative, which may vary depending on the size of the unit they occupy. The corporation is democratically run by tenant-owners, usually with a handful of committees for specific needs/tasks. Monthly-membership fees to cover maintenance and utilities would likely decrease considerably over time with near-passive, energy-efficient construction. But what Hart finds most notable about the model is its social significance.

“What makes a limited-equity cooperative really unique is that the resale of shares is limited because shares can only appreciate at the rate of inflation. This removes real estate speculation from the equation and allows tenant-owners to make a stable investment that builds equity over time. This is one of the only models we’re aware of that creates a potential path to homeownership for renters. Not only is the cooperative model a business model, but it’s also a social model that puts people and relationships first. For a corporation or neighborhood to function democratically, relationships and communication need to be functional, and ideally healthy. We hope that the special attention that cooperatives give to relationships can also help address the crises of isolation and polarization in our community.”

“Not only is the cooperative model a business model, but it’s also a social model that puts people and relationships first. For a corporation or neighborhood to function democratically, relationships and communication need to be functional, and ideally healthy. We hope that the special attention that cooperatives give to relationships can also help address the crises of isolation and polarization in our community.”

Existing site render

Upon reaching the one-year mark on the project this July, the group presented their concept to the Town of Norway planning board, where it was well received. There were specific concerns about setbacks, parking and square footage minimums, but ultimately the board decided they “think cooperative housing would be great in our town.” They also voiced concern about affordable housing or smaller units being synonymous with rising crime and poor maintenance of buildings. Once the cooperative model was outlined to them, however, they understood that tenantowners are incentivized to take care of their homes and their neighbors. In light of some pushback in the rural community to zoning reform within LD 2003, a recently passed bill that addresses Maine’s affordable housing crisis, this last point is an important one. This project offers a creative alternative to accessory dwelling units.

The group also did some canvassing in the neighborhood to get a pulse on how potential future neighbors felt about the project. Hart describes it as a politically diverse, working class neighborhood.

“I’m glad that, regardless of any political affiliations, we’re having those conversations. It was overwhelming how supportive folks were, especially of the idea that we aren’t commercial or out-of-state developers, and our model allows tenants to own their homes. Everyone is feeling the weight of the housing crisis, and it was really heartening to see how our maybe-future neighbors want to support people-centered, effective solutions over outdated, profitcentered models. There was one woman who after we told her about the project got really emotional, and said it gave her hope. I was struck by the realization that we’re not alone in the need for this or the desire to find solutions.”

At the end of September, The Norway Equitable Housing Cooperative secured their half-acre site thanks to a grant from an anonymous donor. Now, the group is raising funds to demo the existing buildings and continue to develop the cooperative. This project is largely volunteer-driven and estimated at $2 to $5 million dollars to complete. If you have a question, want to get involved, or would like to make a donation, visit ecologybasedeconomy.org/ norwayequitablehousingcoop. R