It’s been some years now since the Casella corporation sold its regional incinerator to our proud city. With the garbage smelter’s exit, Biddeford was now positioned to join the gentrification and suburban sprawl scramble that’s engulfing southern Maine. The Portland Press Herald’s front page regularly enthuses over the hot housing “market” where new in-migrants happily pay thousands over a seller’s asking price. Rents rapidly increase as multi-family structures get “flipped,” and the new owners’ costs get passed down to the renters — generally new renters, as the former tenants get priced-out.
Biddeford didn’t used to be particularly “cool,” given its reeking downtown waste processor. Its Main Street showed the effects of shopping mall-ification on the city’s outskirts. But its old tenements offered relatively cheap housing for southern Maine’s increasing downwardly-mobile population.
The city’s political class has been involved for decades in “rebranding” public relations efforts. But spending money to promote the city as a fashionable destination and a hip place to live, formerly faced the stiff “headwind” of its “TrashTown” moniker. Elected officials now happily discover a new wind in their sails and inflation for a new speculative bubble in housing.
At a recent City Council meeting, officials revealed a new Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district around the old Saco-Lowell manufacturing building. Originally built to produce textile equipment for the mills operating in Biddeford and New England, the robust shell has long been largely vacant — a remnant of America’s now unfashionable industrial age and a hostage to the neighboring MERC plant’s operation. A Portland developer/speculator is to be granted a “Credit Enhancement” TIF. The market-rate (i.e. expensive) apartments to be created in the building would increase the taxable value of the structure. But under the TIF, much of that tax money will be returned to the developer. In return, the state will not count the new property value when calculating education subsidy and other revenue sharing, for the term of the TIF at least. Any increase in city tax revenue from the project gets dedicated to state-approved “development” efforts.
The city proposes to get creative however, seeking to change state law covering what counts as development “costs.” These expenditures would now be slated to include $573,659 as “Costs of funding economic development programs or events … or funding the marketing of the municipality as a business or arts location. …” A further $650,147 is proposed for a “Riverwalk & Pedestrian Connector … connecting the City’s Riverwalk to the Riverdam Boardwalk … and the City’s neighborhoods.”
These “trail amenities” are fashionable and are increasingly utilized as greenwashing for the suburban sprawl being considered under Biddeford’s new draft Comprehensive Plan. (More on that later perhaps.)
On the other side of the ledger …
Next month a statewide “Point in Time (Homeless) Count” will be attempted. The Jan. 22, 2020 Courier reported that, “The information collected helps us in our work to end homelessness,” according to a press release from the organizers. Needless to say, the politically supported gentrification boom here, combined with the desperate situation facing “disposable” workers in our shiny new Gig Economy have much to do with increasing the numbers of the “un-housed.”
Local church groups have recently, and without fanfare installed washer-dryer units in our K-12 schools so that the more than 100 homeless kids in our public schools can at least wear clean clothes. With the current CDC’s “eviction moratorium” set to lapse possibly next month, and no federal money yet allocated for the thousands in back-rent that’s been accumulating for tenants during the pandemic, it’s not hard to foresee an upcoming surge of homelessness in Biddeford’s future and nationally.
Bailing out Wall Street, subsidizing the developer class, and fawning over “market-based-solutions” won’t set this situation right. Gentrification and political pandering to America’s top 20 percent — what economist John Kenneth Galbraith called The Fortunate Fifth— will only leave the local economic cast-offs of our city one option: Get outa town.