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Making Maine’s housing fossil

Jul 29, 2023

Maine’s deepening housing crisis is colliding with the global climate crisis.

The state’s population is growing faster than its housing supply — and that growth is driven in part by people seeking out temperate locations to call home in a rapidly warming world.

Some advocates see an opportunity in tackling these two crises at the same time, if state leaders can steer new construction toward the type of denser, all-electric, energy efficient housing that can help bring down living costs and carbon emissions.

Maine Conservation Voters policy director Kathleen Meil is part of the buildings working group of the Maine Climate Council, which is preparing to update its ambitious, four-year 2020 climate plan this fall. She hopes the next phase of their work will dig deeper into this intersection.

“It’s one of the things that I actually find really exciting about this work and about everything related to climate action,” Meil said. “It feels much better than being overwhelmed with, like, ‘Oh, no, we have to accomplish all of these things at the same time.’ It’s like, ‘No, we get to tackle all of the most important problems that people face at the same time. How cool is that?’”

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Maine’s population of nearly 1.4 million people grew as much as 5.9% in the more densely developed southern counties last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Overall, more than 30,000 new residents arrived in Maine from other states and nearly 3,600 emigrated from abroad between July 2020 and the end of 2022.

It’s putting a strain on Maine’s already overstretched housing stock, which had a vacancy rate of 4% for rentals and just 0.4% for homeownership last year, according to the Census Bureau.

Data from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows Maine lacks more than 22,000 housing units that are affordable for the lowest-income people — those who make under $26,500 a year in a four-person household, which covers 30% of Maine renters, per the coalition.

“The waitlists are in the thousands — we’ve got a 12,000-plus waitlist for housing vouchers to help support people’s rent. We’ve got people living in unsafe housing,” said Maine Affordable Housing Coalition executive director Laura Mitchell. “We’re seeing the need everywhere.”

Meanwhile, the state has struggled to shelter thousands of unhoused people, including many in the Portland area whose encampments have been repeatedly razed by the city. And hundreds of incoming asylum-seekers are being temporarily housed in local hotels and at the Portland Expo. Conditions at the Expo sparked a protest in June and deadlines to move out are looming as local officials scramble to stand up new shelters and find other solutions.

“Regardless of where they’re coming from, they need a place to live,” said Ruben Torres, the communication and policy lead with the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.

The new arrivals are likely only to increase as the climate warms. Northern New England states have been called potential “climate havens,” despite facing climate change impacts of their own — such as historically unheard-of levels of extreme heat, coastal sea level rise, and devastating inland flash flooding, as seen in Vermont in recent weeks.

But experts say this region’s ultimately temperate and relatively wildfire- and hurricane-free climate is still poised to be a draw for those fleeing worse situations in the U.S. and abroad.

“The pandemic may in fact be a snapshot of what climate migration will look like in the decades to come,” said Hans Carlson, the executive director for Maine’s Blue Hill Heritage Trust, at an annual statewide sustainability research conference in April, according to The Maine Monitor.

Torres said people emigrating to Maine, lately from countries including Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, may not cite climate change as the topline reason they moved — but dig a little deeper and its signature can be seen throughout migration patterns worldwide.

Historic drought and more sporadic rainfall are disrupting the food and farming systems in countries like these, creating economic disruption, social conflicts and new threats of violence that are pushing people to leave.

“We certainly expect, as time moves on, to see more and more folks be displaced,” domestically and abroad, said Tobin Williamson, the immigrant rights coalition’s advocacy manager. “What we’re trying to do now is kind of just help our policymakers be prepared for that. If you’re going to have thousands of people moving into Maine, you know, now’s the time to build housing for them.”

This preparation also means infrastructure upgrades and other community planning improvements, he said. Groups like the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition supported a bill passed last year that will allow denser housing development in Maine, creating more places in which to build with access to existing utilities, transit and other social services, and with a smaller environmental footprint.

But in order to meet state goals for lowering emissions and to help combat the climate changes that are helping fuel this migration, the homes that Maine adds to meet the needs of new and existing residents will need to be built differently from those of the past.

Maine relies more than any other on pricey, carbon-intensive heating oil to keep warm in frigid winters. Though electric heat pumps are increasingly efficient in cold temperatures, these and other climate-friendly upgrades can make for complicated retrofits in older, less weatherized homes — the kind that pervades Maine’s existing housing stock.

Maine has been pushing hard to overcome this challenge. The state announced in late July that it has already met an initial target in its climate plan for installing 100,000 new heat pumps by 2025. More aggressive heat pump goals for future years are based around reducing specific, computer-modeled levels of emissions from Maine’s homes and buildings, officials have said.

If putting upgrades like heat pumps and better energy efficiency is possible in existing homes, it’s perhaps “the single biggest no-brainer in the field” for new construction, said Matt Rusteika, the director of market transformation for the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

The big potential users of fossil fuel power in most homes are the space heating and cooling systems, water heating, stove and oven, and washer and dryer, plus potentially a generator, Rusteika said. Natural or methane gas is low-hanging fruit to power these features. But Maine has less home gas access than nearly any other state, especially outside its southern tip.

“Maine’s lack of gas service puts it ahead on decarbonizing its homes,” Rusteika said.

The upgrades to ducts or pipes involved in electrifying an existing home can be big cost drivers, he said, but “in new construction, that’s not an issue. So it can actually be cheaper to build a new home or a new building with electrification … than it is build something with fossil fuels.”

This runs counter to some developers’ longtime claims that energy efficient building techniques and electric home infrastructure are uneconomical.

In fact, a 2022 law in Maine mandates that new construction funded by the state Housing Authority must meet a high-level energy efficiency standard, such as the Passive House certification or something similar.

These approaches emphasize electrification, insulation and overall low energy needs, helping create healthy air quality and very low, predictable energy costs, said Naomi Beal, who leads passivhausMAINE.

“We can’t afford” to continue installing fossil fuel-powered systems in Maine homes, she said — “like in a climate way.”

“And also, it’s not necessary,” she added. “It’s dirty, it’s expensive and volatile. … The value of a Passive House-level approach is that the costs are small and super predictable.”

She said these efficient, electrified building techniques are especially economical for larger multifamily developments — such as the new University of Southern Maine dormitory that’s set to be one of the largest Passive House residence halls in the country.

But regulations to help decarbonize in new housing must strike a tricky balance, said the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition’s Mitchell — improving housing quality, sustainability and affordability, without making projects too expensive to build or otherwise slowing the pace of development to house those most in need.

“There’s kind of that sweet spot, because there’s also a social equity issue involved in this,” Mitchell said. “The cost of energy efficiency and addressing climate change shouldn’t fully fall on the backs of people in need of affordable housing.”

She mentioned electric vehicle chargers in single-family affordable housing as an example of a potentially unproductive requirement. Maine’s new law requiring high efficiency standards in state-funded affordable housing projects includes charging access as one way for builders to comply.

“It increases [construction] costs,” Mitchell said, “and when you think about the likelihood of those [chargers] being used, particularly over the short term, you do have to kind of think about what’s perfect and what’s productive.”

Maine is far behind on its electric vehicle adoption goals, which reflect the fact that transportation is the state’s biggest source of emissions — though carmakers are adding more affordable models, and electric vehicles’ lifetime costs tend to be lower than those of gas-powered cars.

The Building Decarbonization Coalition’s Rusteika said regulatory requirements can give developers more certainty, but aren’t always needed at a time when climate-friendly building alternatives are becoming cost-competitive.

“There’s not necessarily the need for a blunt regulatory instrument,” he said. “A lot of people choose electrification on the merits. It’s not an ‘eat your vegetables’ thing.”

But he points to building codes as an unsung, community-scale tool in this effort. Maine has only had a statewide building energy code since the late 2000s — it currently uses the 2015 international code, and is now working on updating to the 2021 edition, according to the Fire Marshal’s office.

The cities of Portland and South Portland are using that 2021 code as an optional “stretch code,” which the state says does more to encourage efficiency, carbon reduction and resiliency.

“The question is,” Rusteika said, “what’s the best thing for the state to do, the most cost-effective thing for the state to do, to achieve that” emissions reduction goal? “I think we know it’s not to put the onus of achieving the goal on the most vulnerable people in the state.”

The West End Apartments, an affordable housing complex in South Portland, Maine, is an example of what’s possible and what kinds of compromises are still required. It was built to a near-Passive House standard with almost no fossil fuel utilities, said architect Jesse Thompson, mainly to lower operating costs for the buildings’ owner long-term.

West End opened its first building in 2021 and its second earlier this year. Some of the 116 total units were set aside to house local asylum-seekers. The apartments have all electric heating, cooling, washers, dryers and stoves, plus robust insulation and a central ventilation system that captures and filters waste heat and recycles fresh air into the apartments.

With construction costs still elevated since the pandemic, the price tag of electric or efficient upgrades can still be tough to fit into a tight budget. The West End buildings have heat pumps in their corridors and lobbies, but not in each unit. Thompson said they had to go with the cheaper option, electric baseboard heaters, instead.

Electric baseboards are generally the most expensive way to heat in Maine. But Thompson said the hallway heat pumps and other design choices mean the baseboards don’t have to work too hard. The buildings’ owner, affordable housing developer Avesta, also opts to cover residents’ electric bills under tax credit rules for buildings like this.

“If we built a ton of big buildings with electric resistance heat, it would tax the grid,” Thompson said. “The heat pumps are good because they sip electricity” — slowly and gradually — “so we can do a lot more buildings.”

There are two fossil fuel-powered features left in the complex. One is the gas-powered generator required to run the buildings’ elevator in an outage. Future developments might be able to use a battery — that will be the case in at least one new affordable housing in Boston, which also has Passive House construction and a rooftop solar array.

The other fossil fuel user is the buildings’ water heaters, which run on gas. It was the cheapest option for the West End project, Thompson said, but it might not be for the next one like it.

“It’s changing really, really rapidly,” Thompson said. “We started designing this building six years ago. [Electric hot water heaters] didn’t feel affordable then. But the buildings we’re designing right now, we’re looking at it. … The machinery’s getting less expensive; the state is pushing much harder to do it.”

This story was supported by the MIT Environmental Solutions Journalism Fellowship. See more reporting from this project at The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit newsroom.

Annie Ropeik is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Maine. She spent about a decade as an award-winning public radio reporter and now works as the assistant director of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an environmental reporting collaborative.

A snapshot of a deepening housing crisisClimate change poised to bring more residentsDwindling fossil fuel needs in new homes Requiring efficiency for affordable housing‘What’s perfect’ vs. ‘what’s productive’Encouraging community-scale changeProgress with limitations