Politics

The YIMBYest City in America 


AUBURN, MAINE — Jason Levesque has a simple theory: His hometown needs more people. A lot of them.

“We have jobs,” the mayor of the city of 24,000 explains. What Auburn needs is people to fill them. This realization has led Levesque to pursue a development strategy for Auburn that eschews the current fashions of urban planning, undertaking instead a quest to increase the city’s population by a quarter or more in the coming years by unleashing the private sector to build 2,000 new housing units by 2025.

What’s unusual about Levesque isn’t just his people-first approach to growing his community, in contravention of the commonplace that municipalities should put jobs first (frequently by poaching them from other places), plow resources into various branding boondoggles and amenities, or seek to attract only certain types of new residents. It’s also that his approach fuses a populist pugnacity with a technocrat’s love of data—and a pragmatism that lets him actually get things done.

Auburn is the fifth-largest city in Maine; when combined with Lewiston, its sister city across the Androscoggin River, it’s the state’s second-largest metro area behind Portland. The city isn’t what you think of when you think of Maine: tourism is minimal, and the lobster-roll-and-saltwater-taffy aesthetic of the state’s coastal towns is nonexistent. In many ways, Auburn feels like a quiet Midwestern town; mainline churches and cupolaed Queen Anne-style homes dating to the 19th century line shady downtown avenues with names like “Spring Street” and “High Street.”

Auburn boasts cupolaed, Queen Anne-style homes dating to the 19th century. Image Credit: John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons

Downtown Auburn has a smattering of restaurants and shops, but most of its commercial life is found along the four-lane state highways radiating out from the city center—what urban planners derisively call “stroads,” a portmanteau of streets (where buildings stand) and roads (thoroughfares). Levesque tells me that new restaurants and a bowling alley are moving into the city center soon, but even then Auburn is unlikely to make any lists of most vibrant downtowns. And that’s just fine: Auburn is fundamentally a blue-collar community that’s not setting out to impress new urbanist or smart growth thought leaders.

Despite its robust economy and advantageous location, Auburn’s population has been essentially stagnant for 60 years, even as neighboring towns with less-restrictive land use policies have grown and the state’s populace has increased by a third. Levesque wants to bring people in by making Auburn a place they can actually live, and that means building homes.

Maine has a housing problem. Actually, it has several housing problems. Supply isn’t keeping up with demand. As in many other parts of the country, prices are up astronomically: The cost of the median single-family home in the state has increased almost 40% over the past two years, due in part to a pandemic-fueled in-migration rate that is one of the highest in the country per capita. Rentals are hard to come by. More than 40% of the state’s low-income renters spend 30% of their income on rent, and 1 in 5 Mainers spends half or more of their income on housing. The housing stock is old. Housing markets lack liquidity, locking people into homes that are larger or smaller than they would prefer. That the state is still relatively affordable compared with, say, the Boston area is cold comfort for young adults unable to find homes in their hometowns or transplants who have found work in the area but nowhere to live.

That’s the problem that Levesque has set out to cure in Auburn.

Born in Baltimore to a Greek immigrant father and a Mainer mother, his parents split up when he was young, and he moved back to his mother’s hometown, where he became a fifth generation Auburnite. Levesque attended college in West Virginia but found it wasn’t for him, so he enlisted in the Army and spent eight years in uniform, including three as a drill sergeant.

After his military career, Levesque returned home to Auburn and started a marketing business. In 2010, he ran for Congress as a Tea Party-style Republican (declining to label himself a member of the movement), but he was defeated handily by incumbent Mike Michaud. Levesque says that a friendship between the two candidates blossomed after the race.

In 2017, a merger between Auburn and Lewiston was put to the ballot; it was roundly rejected by voters in both municipalities. Levesque, running for mayor of Auburn that year, helped lead the anti-merger campaign, which he credits with helping him squeak past his opponent by 12 votes.

Levesque ran on a pro-residential development platform, arguing that the city had to make one of three choices: dramatically hike taxes, gut public services or bring in new residents. It took him more than a year in office before he realized that the city’s zoning code and land use policies were the key impediment to building more housing and attracting new residents. Since then, he’s advocated strenuously for clearing away barriers to building new housing in Auburn, adopting an “all of the above approach” that includes single-family homes, multi-family homes, apartments and accessory dwelling units (or ADUs). And truly, all options are on the table: a former synagogue was recently converted into 10 apartments.

“In terms of allowing new investment in established neighborhoods, Auburn’s new zoning goes far beyond the celebrated reforms in Minneapolis and Oregon,” says economist Salim Furth, my colleague at the Mercatus Center who has advised the City of Auburn on its zoning reforms. “Instead of latching on to one kind of housing, Auburn has opened up its neighborhoods to innovation.”

Furth sees Auburn’s reforms as among the most ambitious in the country today, and a model for other communities—indeed, he notes that other officials from as far away as New Mexico are asking him about what’s happening in the city.

The 2,000 housing units that Levesque wants to add may be small in absolute numbers but are bold in relative terms; they would provide the housing stock needed to increase Auburn’s population by some 25%. To put it in perspective, it would be like New York City adding 800,000 new homes and more than 2 million new residents.

While Furth and other national experts have advised the city, Auburn’s plan is truly homegrown. The city, with its roots in the blue-collar industries of the region, isn’t setting out to attract the creative class knowledge workers that are the desiderata of many other cities. Levesque wants to make Auburn “a blue-collar utopia,” not a Manhattan in miniature.

In 2019, the city’s sesquicentennial year, Auburn began the decennial review of its Comprehensive Plan. A committee chaired by Dana Staples, a long-time civic volunteer, proposed massive changes to land-use policies in Auburn, including rezoning parts of the city for greater density and simplifying things by reducing the number of zones from more than 20 to just eight.

Evan Cyr, a high school science teacher and chair of the city’s planning board, sees this simplification as critical to bringing in the builders who will put up new single-family homes—both in creating new neighborhoods and taking on infill development. “One of the biggest tools in our toolbox for promoting development is creating predictability,” he says.

Levesque agrees. “A strong municipal leader needs to have faith in the people that create growth and ensure that government sets clear simple policies and then gets out of their way,” he told the Sun Journal in 2019. “This needs to happen throughout our city. In short, we must create opportunity, not set up roadblocks.”

The revised Comprehensive Plan was approved by the City Council in December by a 6-1 vote. The council is now undertaking the process of putting the plan into action. And, notably, the city is working to unload publicly owned buildable parcels to builders who will put them to productive use.

Zone Defense

Perhaps the most contentious issue facing the city—and one that really brings out Levesque’s blue-collar populism—is the Agriculture and Resource Protection Zone. Known colloquially as the Ag Zone, it covers some 20,000 acres—about 40% of Auburn, and an area larger than all of the land in the City of Portland. Onerous restrictions effectively put the Ag Zone off limits to residential development, to the pleasure of some Auburnites but to the chagrin of many others. While some land in the zone is actively used for farming, the vast majority of it is forested, including formerly cultivated fields that returned to nature as farming in the area became increasingly uneconomical.

Levesque doesn’t mince words when asked about the Ag Zone, getting worked up with a populist ardor against a system he sees as rigged and unfair. “The people who made the rules understand the game,” he says—and they rigged it in their favor. When the zone was established in the 1960s, Ag Zone residents simultaneously protected the areas around them from development and lowered their property valuations and hence their property taxes, pushing the tax burden to the city’s core.

To Levesque, the Ag Zone was designed to secure the privilege of “landed individuals of colonial descent,” a phrase he enunciates precisely to let its meaning sink in, to the exclusion first of French Canadian and Irish settlers and today of everyone who’s not already a zone resident. He sees it as an issue of equity and basic fairness, which is why he brings such zeal to the otherwise staid question of zoning.

“This type of socio-economic discrimination has torn our city apart, has exposed some hard truths about past generations’ intentions and the negative effects it has had on thousands of Auburn residents,” Levesque wrote in testimony in support of a bill that would have essentially ended Ag Zone-style restrictions statewide. (The bill ultimately failed to advance out of committee.)

Ag zone residents and defenders don’t quite see it that way. In 2019, Francis Eanes, an Environmental Studies professor at nearby Bates College, conducted a study of the roughly 800 Ag Zone landowners and found that a majority were against building new houses in the zone. The study immediately became a flashpoint in the contentious debate about the zone.

Eanes shared his survey results with me, and one pattern emerged from the qualitative data he collected: Many Ag Zone residents wanted to build on their own property—they just didn’t want their neighbors building on theirs. More than three-quarters of respondents also said that it was “extremely important” or “very important” to keep the zone’s property taxes low. And strong majorities also believed that new development should be concentrated in the city’s urban core. In other words, Ag Zone residents expressed classic not-in-my-backyard beliefs. Or perhaps more specifically, maybe-in-my-backyard-but-certainly-not-in-yours.

Eanes comes across as an honest broker, and his research is informative as a study of public opinion—but it says nothing about the opportunity cost of keeping a large chunk of nearby land out of the housing marketplace. That is, his research wasn’t designed to identify tradeoffs between competing goods and values.

In 2019, the Auburn City Council made it somewhat easier to build homes in the Ag Zone, but it’s nowhere near what Levesque would like to see. That fall, Levesque won re-election with 59% of the vote, in a contest widely seen as a referendum on his housing policy. In 2021, he won a third two-year term, running unopposed.

‘Partisanship doesn’t really enter into it’

Auburn is a deeply purple community; Donald Trump carried the city in 2016 by just 29 votes out of almost 12,000 cast. Joe Biden won Auburn by a margin of a little over 1,000 votes four years later. Then-incumbent Republican Paul LePage won the race for governor in the city in 2014; Democrat Janet Mills won Auburn four years later. Levesque is a Republican, but town elections are nonpartisan.

Even so, the brain worms of partisanship could have taken over Auburn as they have many other communities. But they haven’t. There are mercifully few indications of national politics in Auburn, and there exists almost none of the mind-addled sloganeering that adorns the flagpoles and car bumpers of many other communities.

Staples, who in 2021 was elected to an at-large seat on the City Council, says that throughout all the debates about zoning and land use, there’s been little negativity. “Partisanship doesn’t really enter into it,” he says; debates and disagreements in Auburn are on matters of substance, not party. As a councilor, Staples has backed the mayor on increasing the amount of the city covered by form based code, but voted against his proposals to expand development around Lake Auburn, the source of the city’s water supply.

A software developer by trade, Staples moved to Auburn after finishing his undergraduate degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Raised in nearby Minot, Staples is a soft-spoken Democrat focused on details—almost the opposite of Levesque. He admits he was put off at first by Levesque’s style, “but he grew on me.”

In many cities across the country, Staples and Levesque would be at each other’s throats as enemies. Instead, they share a positive working relationship and mutual respect.

Surely this is in no small part due to Levesque’s proactive agenda of building and growing. In tone and rhetoric he may be a scrappy pugilist, a style that enjoys a great deal of currency at the moment, particularly in working class communities like Auburn. Not everyone has been a fan of his leadership style, which can come across as unnecessarily aggressive. “The mayor is not a king,” his opponent in the 2019 mayoral race pointedly told the Sun Journal. “And he should not act like one.”

But unlike other disputatious pols who put their energy into fighting for its own sake or tearing down others, Levesque’s impatient, sometimes aggressive manor (which includes mixing it up on social media) is in service of a bold, positive vision that he’s working to execute.

’Execution Leaves Scars’

Much of the responsibility for executing this vision falls on Auburn’s city manager, Phil Crowell, a native son who spent 25 years on the city’s police force, including 12 as chief. He also served a few brief stints as an interim manager over the years, before retiring from the force and becoming the city’s assistant manager. Levesque elevated Crowell to city manager in 2020.

“Leaders want leaders,” Levesque says about Crowell. “They want people who execute.” “Execution leaves scars,” he admits. But he sees the status quo as untenable—and Crowell is the one who has to implement the changes decided on by Levesque and the City Council.

Crowell and his assistant city manager, Brian Wood, are cut from entirely different cloth—and Levesque seems to like it that way. Crowell is physically imposing and looks like a retired cop from central casting; Wood is of average build and about half Crowell’s age. Crowell is the hometown boy; Wood grew up in Cleveland and worked in DC for 10 years, first as an intern on Capitol Hill and then in DC city government. Crowell has a degree in justice administration from the University of Maine; Wood studied political science and sociology at Miami University in Ohio.

In short, Crowell and Wood represent the two sides of Levesque’s approach to public administration: Crowell is the old-timer who knows how to make things run in Auburn; Wood is the technocrat with the expansive network.

Both Crowell and Wood have experienced the city’s housing crunch firsthand. Crowell’s 25-year-old son is getting married and wants to build a home in Auburn, but finding land has proven difficult. Wood moved to Maine in 2020 and has yet to buy a home. Moving from DC was a shock to him: It’s not that housing is expensive in Auburn, it’s that it’s simply not available.

Crowell has had to reset some expectations within the city government’s workforce to enact the city’s pro-growth agenda, which has been challenging at times. For instance, he says, the planning and permitting functions were expected in the past to be revenue neutral. As the city cut fees dramatically, department managers worried the decline in revenues would reflect poorly on them. So Crowell had to instill in them the understanding that “the work you are doing will bring greater value than the permit fee.” As it turns out, he says, the increase in total development has largely offset the losses from the lower fees.

Not everyone is on board with Levesque’s push to build new housing. Recently, a group of residents began circulating a petition to override the City Council’s decision to allow denser development in some areas of the city through the application of form based code. Under the terms of the city charter, if they gather 1,648 signatures, the council will have to reconsider its action. Ultimately, it may go to the voters in a referendum.

The planning board’s Cyr says the city has been working hard to encourage public participation in the process, using the local press to “drum up awareness” and helping people connect specific plans, especially those that affect their homes and neighborhoods, with the city’s larger goals. “You can’t give fluffy existential answers” when people ask pointed questions about what, say, the application of form based code will mean to the value of their homes and the character of their neighborhoods. Homeowners fear the unknown, and not without reason.

Both Cyr and Levesque say that many early critics have come around as they learn more about the vision for the city and how the proposed zoning changes fit into it. That has involved a lot of public participation and private reassurances. “It’s important to honor people’s voices,” Cyr says, but not let a vocal minority stop all progress. Levesque is characteristically direct: “We have constituents. We have to listen to them. It doesn’t mean we have to placate them.”

In the statehouse in Augusta, officials are paying attention as well. In April, Gov. Janet Mills signed LD 2003, a bipartisan bill that implements some of the recommendations of the Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine. Among other things, the new law allows homeowners statewide to build ADUs by right and allows two units to be placed on lots zoned for single-family housing. It’s not everything that housing advocates want, but it’s several steps in the right direction.

LD 2003 was sponsored by Rep. Ryan Fecteau, the 29-year-old speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives and co-chair of the commission. Levesque and Fecteau have been supportive of one another’s efforts to build more housing. The two “could not be more opposite” on most issues, Levesque avers. “But on this, we’re BFFs.”

Fecteau says that Auburn’s early leadership was important in showing the state housing commission he co-chaired what was already being done. Levesque “talked about some of the work they had already done to break open some of the barriers, especially when it came to zoning. It was impressive to hear one of Maine’s largest communities had done this work.”

‘I want to make Auburn future-proof’

Zoning and homebuilding are fundamentally about the future more than the present. Homes built in the coming years may be around for a century or more; patterns of residency, entrepreneurship and civic life that emerge in Auburn will shape its future for decades. The housing crises facing places like Los Angeles and San Francisco today were the result of decisions made by long-deceased city planners as much as they are of today’s elected officials. As Furth notes, if Los Angeles “had allowed moderate growth decades ago, it would be much less tense and pricey today.” Levesque knows this and sees his charge as making Auburn “future-proof.”

Getting people to focus on the future has been one of the biggest challenges throughout the process, says Cyr. Planning, he argues, is about extending the desirable traits of a community to more people. And it’s about what the future looks like, “not simply identifying what you currently have.”

Levesque’s bias in favor of housing and bringing in new residents reflects an optimism that’s in short supply in our politics. This is a shame: For decades, free market types have rallied around economist Julian Simon’s idea that people are “the ultimate resource,” Whereas activists and intellectuals on the left reflect the view of Paul Ehrlich and Thomas Malthus that people are a problem to be managed and that the world ultimately needs fewer not more humans.

While Levesque might or might not label himself a “free marketeer”—I never asked, and in the hours we spent together, I never heard him apply an ideological or dogmatic label to himself or anyone else—he clearly understands on a visceral level that a growing population redounds to a community’s benefit.

Welcoming new residents to Auburn is somewhat easier said than done, even setting aside housing policy, especially for people who come “from away” as Mainers say, meaning from outside the state. Mainers can be prickly about people born or raised outside the state, who can find themselves treated with subtle skepticism.

Riley Whitcomb, 23, just finished a barbering apprenticeship and cuts hair in downtown Auburn at the Apollo Barbershop, located across from the library in the city’s old fire department building. His family moved to Maine when he was 9, and he knows that’s a strike against him in some eyes. “But my little brother was born here,” Riley says by way of showing his local bona fides. He’d like to stay in the area—he likes the vibe—but his big wild card is housing.

Speaker Fecteau believes Maine’s famous provincialism is waning: “That way of thinking is maybe not as prominent as it once was.” To the extent it’s still a problem, he says, lowering housing costs will ameliorate a key point of friction between old and new Mainers. “Everyone who wants to call Maine home [should be able to afford] to do so.” Levesque admits the insular mentality remains a problem, but he insists that people who come from outside the area who—and this is key—want to become part of the community are more than welcome.

Despite the recent surge of in-migration, Maine is facing demographic headwinds: Of all states, it has the highest percentage of its population age over 65, the lowest percentage of its population under 18, and the highest median age at 45.1 years. “A large percentage of our workforce is steadily approaching retirement age,” Fecteau says. Indeed, the Maine Chamber of Commerce estimates the state will need 65,000 or more new workers in the coming decade—numbers that make it imperative for the state’s culture to become somewhat more welcoming.

So far, things are off to a good start. This 53-unit rental building, located in downtown Auburn, opened in 2020. Image Credit: Daniel M. Rothschild

So far, Auburn’s housing boom is off to a good start. According to Levesque, there are more than 800 units already approved and in or through the permitting process. Most of these are multifamily dwellings (just last week, 128 new market-rate rentals were announced), but the planning board’s Cyr expects single-family housing also to pick up soon.

ADUs are popping up as well. Most applicants are older residents who want to live near their children or grandchildren—but not so near that they share a kitchen. In the first year, a dozen or more have been permitted. Furth notes that Auburn’s ADU permitting rate is on par with much pricier California cities, where the economic logic for additional units taking up a small footprint is much stronger.

Civic boosterism has long had a bad name—think Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbitt—and not without good reason. Many small- and medium-size communities’ elected officials, chambers of commerce, and other organs of civil and commercial society are quick to offer jejune encomia about their towns. At most, they might pursue quixotic quests to market their cities as convention destinations, or they could latch on to the latest fads among urban planners that more often than not produce high costs and disappointing benefits.

Levesque isn’t a booster, and Auburn doesn’t seek to be boosted. The city is building on its strengths as it plans for the future, neither trying to emulate something it is not, nor declaring the community and its population a finished product. Levesque’s message is that his hometown is a great place to live, and that its blessings can be bestowed on still more people. It’s an optimistic, forward-looking vision for a city made all the more impressive for being birthed in a national political moment where pessimism and looking to the past are the watchwords.

It might seem strange that a smallish city in the far northeastern corner of the country is leading the way in fixing what cities with orders of magnitude more residents, resources and professional staff seem unable or unwilling to address. Perhaps the differentiating factor is that Auburn has an audacious but achievable vision for what it can be in the future—and that optimism and proactivity resonate better with citizens than the cynics and political consultants would have us believe.

Beneath all the technical language necessarily associated with urban planning, the city’s vision is intuitive and simple: more homes and more people. This is critical, not just for Auburn’s future, but to demonstrate to other cities and states that the most important solution to the problem of spiraling housing costs—and to the attendant social tumult—really is building more housing. And the key thing standing in the way of building homes are barriers established both intentionally and unintentionally by decades of policy choices.

Jason Levesque shows that a populist mien and an optimistic vision are not mutually exclusive, and that a pugilist’s demeanor can coexist with a pragmatist’s willingness to build coalitions, even when that entails compromise, and to take the wins as they come.

He will be happy to leave his mark on Auburn in the form of new houses and residents. “I’ll keep pushing until this gets done,” he told a reporter recently. “Or until they stop electing me.”

 



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