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Many of the headlines involving Auburn city government this past week were less than flattering, after a city councilor made perplexing and fundamentally racist comments. These remarks, it should almost go without saying, reflected poorly on the city.
In contrast, though it may have flown much more under the radar, a housing presentation made by Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque on Thursday had the opposite effect. Speaking to the newly created state Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine, Levesque outlined various steps the city has taken to bolster residential housing availability. He also demonstrated a strong awareness of the racist legacy of some zoning restrictions, comments that ran counter to the clueless remarks from Councilor Leroy Walker two days earlier.
Levesque, a former Republican congressional candidate now in his second term as mayor, went through various steps Auburn has taken in the past few years "to add more housing," including eliminating minimum commercial parking requirements; instituting more permissive secondary dwelling unit rules without size, placement or usage restrictions; waiving construction and rehabilitation fees for veterans; and working to eliminate exclusive zoning.
Commissioner Anthony Jackson, a consultant and co-program director of the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine in Bangor, asked Levesque about hurdles for low-income people finding housing, and about how Levesque's efforts to address "artificial scarcity" in the housing market are being received in Auburn.
"When people say we want to maintain the rural character, or the character of our neighborhood, that's all coming from the 1930s of redlining. All this stuff is based on, foundationally based on racist zoning principles," Levesque responded. "We're trying to eliminate it, but it's just prevalent everywhere. Now, it wasn't African Americans in the 1930s or '40s, it was French Canadians like Levesque."
Redlining, a discriminatory lending practice that prevented people — mostly people of color — from buying homes in particular neighborhoods, has been outlawed for years. But its impact, and the impact of other exclusionary housing and zoning policies, can still be seen today.
Does this mean all zoning regulations are racist? Of course not. But there are longstanding barriers baked into zoning that must be acknowledged and revisited. This reassessment is in line with the charge of the housing commission Levesque presented to, which was created by legislation from Maine Speaker of the House Ryan Fecteau, a Democrat from Biddeford, to study zoning and land use restrictions as a means of increasing housing opportunities.
"Zoning is the biggest detriment we have right now to racial equity with regards to affordable and fair housing," Levesque added. "I said it, people don't like it when I do."
There is a lot that can and should be done to address Maine's continued need for more affordable housing, and it won't look the same for each community. Along with Levesque, Thursday's commission meeting included presentations from local officials in Fort Fairfield, Portland and Scarborough. The housing needs in Portland are not the same as those in Fort Fairfield, and what's working in Auburn or Scarborough might not always work for the other.
But some things are universal and should be recognized as such. The way that some zoning regulations have acted as a segregating force in communities across the U.S. — and yes, in Maine — needs to be part of the statewide conversation. The commission's upcoming meeting on Sept. 16 is expected to cover the topic of zoning and racial equality.
The state, through this new commission, should take steps to help local leaders understand this history and continued impact, and help navigate paths forward to turn barriers into opportunities. That should include following Levesque's example in confronting uncomfortable truths.
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