Episode 17: Building Community – The promise of affordable housing

January 28, 2020

We kick off Season 2 of The Greater Good with a conversation about affordable housing and community economic development. We start by defining both of these terms and then delve into their history in the U.S., the current housing shortage, proposed law and policy changes, and the link to environmental sustainability. Our guests are Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and Avesta Housing; Professor Peter Pitegoff of the University of Maine School of Law; and Nina Ciffolillo, the Economic Justice Fellow for the Class of 2021 at the University of Maine School of Law.

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Notes

 
Episode Notes

We kick off Season 2 of The Greater Good with a conversation about affordable housing and community economic development. We start by defining both of these terms and then delve into their history in the U.S., the current housing shortage, proposed law and policy changes, and the link to environmental sustainability. Our guests are Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and Avesta Housing; Professor Peter Pitegoff of the University of Maine School of Law; and Nina Ciffolillo, the Economic Justice Fellow for the Class of 2021 at the University of Maine School of Law.

Greg Payne is the Director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and Development Officer at Avesta Housing. Greg has nearly two decades of experience in issues related to housing and homelessness, including work at the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. Greg joined Avesta Housing in 2007 as a Development Officer. In addition to his responsibilities for managing all aspects of multifamily rental projects from concept to completion, Greg serves as Director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, a diverse association of more than 125 private and public sector organizations committed to ensuring that all Mainers are adequately and affordably housed. He is currently the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and serves on the Board of Genesis Community Loan Fund.

Peter Pitegoff is Professor of Law at the University of Maine School of Law, where he was Dean from 2005 to 2015. He has taught, worked, and written extensively in the areas of community economic development, labor and industrial organization, corporation and nonprofit law, employee ownership, and legal ethics. Pitegoff served for ten years on the board of directors of Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a national leader in community development finance. Prior to his academic career, he was legal counsel for the ICA Group, a Boston firm that assists worker-owned enterprises and related economic development initiatives nationwide.

Nina Ciffolillo is a second year law student at the University of Maine School of Law. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in English and Environment and moved to Maine in 2016, where she worked for two seasons on a vegetable farm. She began at Maine Law in 2018 and is the Economic Justice Fellow for the Class of 2021. Last summer, in connection with her fellowship, she worked in affordable housing development and policy at Avesta Housing. She plans to use her law degree to combat economic and environmental injustice.

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Episode Guests

Greg Payne is the Director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and Development Officer at Avesta Housing. Greg has nearly two decades of experience in issues related to housing and homelessness, including work at the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. Following his graduation from law school, he worked in Boston for five years as a real estate attorney specializing in affordable housing. Greg joined Avesta Housing in 2007 as a Development Officer. In addition to his responsibilities for managing all aspects of multifamily rental projects from concept to completion, Greg serves as Director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, a diverse association of more than 125 private and public sector organizations committed to ensuring that all Mainers are adequately and affordably housed. He is currently the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Low Income Housing Coalition and serves on the Board of Genesis Community Loan Fund. Greg earned a BA in Economics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and a JD from Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. 

Peter Pitegoff is Professor of Law at the University of Maine School of Law, where he was Dean from 2005 to 2015. He has taught, worked, and written extensively in the areas of community economic development, labor and industrial organization, corporation and nonprofit law, employee ownership, and legal ethics. Pitegoff served for ten years on the board of directors of Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a national leader in community development finance. Prior to his academic career, he was legal counsel for the ICA Group, a Boston firm that assists worker-owned enterprises and related economic development initiatives nationwide. For more background on Peter and links to his writing, please visit his faculty profile.

Nina Ciffolillo is a second year law student at the University of Maine School of Law. She graduated from McGill University with a degree in English and Environment and moved to Maine in 2016, where she worked for two seasons on a vegetable farm. She began at Maine Law in 2018 and is the Economic Justice Fellow for the Class of 2021. Last summer, in connection with her fellowship, she worked in affordable housing development and policy at Avesta Housing. She plans to use her law degree to combat economic and environmental injustice.

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Transcript

​This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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The Greater Good: Episode 17

Carrie: Welcome to the Greater Good: a podcast devoted to exploring complex and emerging issues in law, business and policy. I’m your host Carrie Wilshusen, Associate Dean for Admissions at the University of Maine School of Law.

Carrie: Today we’re talking about community economic development and affordable housing and how they are critical to a robust economy, both locally and nationally. Our guests, are professor Peter Pitigoff of the University of Maine School of Law, who has taught, worked and written extensively in the areas of community, economic development, labor and industrial organization, corporation and nonprofit law, employee ownership and legal ethics. Greg Payne is the director of Maine Affordable Housing Coalition and a development officer at Avesta Housing. Greg is an alum of Northeastern University School of Law. Nina Ciffolillo is a second year law student at Maine Law and our inaugural economic justice fellow for the class of 2021. 

Welcome. We’re so delighted to have you here for this very important conversation. So let’s begin with you, Peter. Can you talk to us about what is community economic development and why is it so critical to a healthy economy?

Peter: Well, thank you, Carrie. Community economic development is essentially about using the tools of business and finance to develop affordable housing, to create quality jobs, to build business opportunities in low and moderate income communities. It’s about tapping market forces, not just for profit, but for social goals as well.

Carrie: Wonderful. So before we get in more deeply into this topic, I’d like to get a sense of what brought each of you to the work that you do. So let’s start with Peter since we already started with you. 

Peter: Well, where to start. I was a community organizer in the mid seventies in rural North Carolina and then in Oakland, California. And in North Carolina I was in working in predominantly African American communities, very, very poor communities and just saw the need for community development. I saw a different version in the inner city of Oakland, power relations that were very, very uneven. So I went to law school and thought that I could use perhaps some of the tools of law and business enterprise to meet some of the same goals of empowerment, that community organizing was about. 

Carrie: Great. 

Greg: I’ve been drawn to issues of housing and homelessness for a really long time. Going back to middle school, and having my first experiences serving in soup kitchens in downtown Boston. I think just from the very beginning, it really spoke to me because I understand how it was just very clear to me right away how fundamental having a home to lay your head in, how fundamental that is to the human experience, almost as fundamental as eating and breathing. It is easy to understand how your housing opportunities and your housing situation drive so much of your health outcomes and your educational outcomes and your employment outcomes. I think the experience of witnessing people who didn’t have housing that they could afford just hit me so hard that ever since I have been looking for ways to help. 

So I’m kind of fortunate now to be in a position where I get to spend about half of my time building affordable housing at a very strong nonprofit based here in Portland. And the other half of my time, I am advocating on federal and state policy issues. I was ultimately driven to law school based on advocacy work in Atlanta and witnessing homeless people get put in jail in very large numbers as the Olympics drew closer and seeing the legal community there failed to step up and protect them and protect their rights. And I kind of watched that and pledged I never wanted to be in a situation where I didn’t have the tools myself to be able to be helpful in that kind of situation too. So that’s what drove me to law school. But I don’t practice law so much in the traditional sense anymore. I know both Peter and Nina can understand too, using your law degree encompasses a whole lot of different things. 

Nina: I came to the work of economic development and economic justice through a slightly different path. I was really always interested in environmental issues and trying to keep the environment healthy for healthy people and welfare for the community. The more I studied environmental issues, the more I saw patterns of inequality and issues of environmental injustice where pollution and resource use are often concentrated in communities with less money, often communities of color. So it was those issues that drew me to law school. But after college I worked on a farm and so I got to work on more local issues of food justice, which is also related to economic justice. So after work on the farm, I would notice there was lots of extra produce that we didn’t have time to pick and our bosses didn’t have money to pay us to pick. So I would stay after work with some help and pick the vegetables and we gave them to The Locker Project, which is a local organization that builds food pantries in schools and also does fresh food distributions. Most of it donated and food that’s rescued from being thrown away. I really enjoyed that, but I felt like law school would give me more tools with which to combat these issues, maybe on a larger scale. So that’s what drew me here. 

Carrie: Wonderful. Greg, so you work predominantly in affordable housing. Can you talk about how that relates to community economic development and maybe some of the work that you’re doing? 

Greg: Sure. I think affordable housing development is community development at at a basic level. When we’re fortunate enough to get the financing together to build an affordable housing property anywhere in Maine or in the United States, that means hundreds of jobs typically, for people in the construction and design and engineering fields. After a project is built and very quickly leased up, what happens is people who often were isolated before or lacked community now have a community at a property. I’d say generally in the Portland area, we’re talking about 30 units of housing and one or two buildings, typically for people who are earning 25 to 45,000 a year. That’s kind of the typical look of an affordable housing property in this area. But once people are in those buildings, community develops and they tend to be located in places that are a service center, areas near jobs, near services, certainly in Greater Portland having access to transportation. So I think in many ways between jobs and community building, affordable housing has a very center place in community development issues.

Carrie: And community development has a long history in the United States. Peter, can you talk a little bit about the history of community development in the United States? 

Peter: There’s been some ups and downs. It’s hard to know how far back, but certainly the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in the wake of the Great Depression, involved a lot of top down economic development to great effect. It was essentially federal government subsidy, and vision for, helping people who were in desperate straits who were in poverty. In the 1960s that evolved into a little bit more of a precursor to community economic development in the war on poverty. A lot of the programs that came out of that era and the birth of the community development corporation as a neighborhood entity, a nonprofit organization that does housing development, that does enterprise development and the like in recent decades, community development has evolved into involving very complex finance transactions driven in part by changes in the internal revenue code, essentially creating tax credits for both affordable housing and for community revitalization.

Carrie: Is the evolution a good thing? 

Peter: It’s a good thing in terms of producing substantial housing and good results. It’s good in the sense that community economic development has as a key characteristic, participation by and accountability to the very constituents who are being served by the development opportunities. And so some of these efforts have really energized some of those local developments. It’s not all perfect. And in some ways we can talk about this further, but the transactions involving tax credits and some of these more complex finance mechanisms are very complicated and in some ways out of reach for many of the people in the low and moderate income communities. 

Carrie: And what happens to those folks? 

Peter: Well, hopefully many will benefit from projects that create housing, create jobs. But in terms of community economic development goals, it is building capacity in the community for sustainability and for further development and for growing and for building and for nurturing what’s created. 

Carrie: Greg can you tell us a little bit about the history of affordable housing. 

Greg: Sure. For many decades in America, we primarily financed the creation of new affordable housing largely through direct grants from the federal government to organizations, housing authorities, mostly nonprofits around the country. So the federal government essentially granted that money to both build apartments and granted those organizations the rental assistance required to serve the lowest income people. In the mid eighties, that entire approach changed pretty radically. As Peter was alluding to, it kinda took a turn to tax credits involving a public-private partnership instead of that pure public kind of model that existed prior to it. So this happened as a result of the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and it heralded the creation of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which is the main resource by which all affordable housing really is built throughout Maine and the United States.

And that kind of mostly is very, very good thing. The program has worked exceedingly well. It did introduce some good private market discipline into the world of creating affordable housing buildings. I think what happens is that when private investors are putting their money into the creation of a new building, they care a lot about how it looks. They care a lot about making sure that it is eminently leaseable and that there will not be vacant units. The program itself was bipartisan, which is incredibly important for the lifespan of any kind of government program that is not regarded as the child of one or either party but instead is something that both sides embrace. And that has been the case with the low income housing tax credit. So what you have now generally are quite attractive buildings that blend into the communities in which they are built. People generally find them to be an asset in the community, not as an eyesore. They are exceedingly successful, almost no foreclosures at all in the state over the course of the history of that program. The certainly there is more complexity. There is a little bit more transaction costs involved with these. There’s expenses that wouldn’t have been in place in the prior method of creating housing, escrows and amenities that the private market wants in order to minimize its risk. But still the final product is something that I think the community really embraces. 

And the one other thing I’ll say about it is that one of the limitations is that the program itself is really geared to people who are at 40 to 60% of whatever the local area median income is. So, like I mentioned before, think $25,000 to $45,000 in the Portland area, depending on the size of a family. Whereas before the model we use to create housing, that was really focused on the lowest income people. So when you’re talking about people who are experiencing homelessness, people’s whose incomes are below 25,000, a lot of seniors on low fixed incomes, they generally have a hard time accessing low income housing tax credit properties. And so that’s one of the big challenges. But certainly for the group of people that the program is targeted to, it’s been a pretty great success and its survival in the 2017 federal tax legislation I think is an indication of just how much bipartisan support it has. 

Carrie: And we have a national housing crisis on our hands, right? 

Greg: We do. Big picture, there’s about 11 million extremely low income households in America, and there’s about 4 million rental homes that are affordable and available to them. Those numbers exist in Maine as well, obviously in scale to Maine. We simply don’t have enough housing for all of the low income people that we have, whether you’re talking about Maine or the United States. That’s why at Avesta last year, 4,000 different people came to us seeking an affordable place to live. We’re able to help 373 of them. Most of the rest of them went on long waiting lists. And that’s the world we live in. We need to radically increase our production of affordable housing. 

Carrie: Do you want to chip in Peter? 

Peter: Sure. We shouldn’t lose sight of something Greg said at the outset that this was a way for community development organizations, affordable housing development organizations, to tap new sources of capital and those programs, the low income housing tax credit out of the 1986 tax act and then the New Markets Tax Credit in the year 2000, which built on the same model of providing tax credits to investors, rather than just housing. It’s for broader community revitalization that built bridges to banks, national banks, community banks, to financing sources, to foundations making program related investments. That has turned out to be a critical, critical foundation for affordable housing community development today. It would be even better to fill some of the gap that Greg’s talking about if there were greater federal subsidy, not just tax expenditures through tax credits.

Carrie: But landlords are in the business of making money. Why should we undermine their ability to make the best rent? Like the Portland market’s really hot right now, right? Why should we encourage subsidized housing and things like that? 

Greg: Well, because in the end it isn’t about just the landlords. It’s about the people who live here. And so, if you have low wage workers, seniors living on low fixed incomes, people with disabilities, their incomes are quite modest and they need a place to live, just like people whose incomes aren’t modest. So you gotta have a market that recognizes that every single person, every single person needs a place to be safe and a place they can afford. As much as landlords may wish that they could charge $3,000 a month because the supply of housing is too restricted. I think the gauge, the proper gauge is, does everybody in the community have the opportunity to afford a place to lay their head at night? I think that’s the question to start out with homelessness. Or insecure housing impacts the employees that go to work every day and the families that are going to school every day, right? Yes. So the community needs to have these programs in order to be a vital community.

Peter: Yes. And at its core, an essential right to housing, an essential right to quality jobs, is part of civic society. And I think the extreme economic inequality we see now can be perhaps countered a bit by some of these community development activities.

Carrie: Were these policies or programs ever misused in the past? I’m just thinking of the [book], The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, and those ideas about government programs having actually increased some of the problems in our society. Nina?

Nina: I think one thing that happened early on before tax credits were so big, when it was more grant funded, was that a lot of housing that was built was not as safe. For instance, there’s a lot of examples where public housing was built on say a cheap old factory site and it wasn’t built well. So the people that were living there actually suffered extreme health effects. And, and I think that’s an example where maybe the solution to the problem wasn’t as good as it should have been and a piece of that got taken care of in the tax credit in the 80s because there was a different kind of responsivity and oversight. I think having investors in the housing creates an incentive to have good quality housing to an extent. 

Carrie: So you all are on listserves around these issues. What are some hot topics?

Peter: Well, one topic, large topic perhaps is such an inordinate reliance on tax credits. I think the tax credit, the low income housing tax credit and the new markets tax credit, have done wonderfully helpful things to build local economies. But will they always have bipartisan support? Will Congress continue to support them? It is provided access to capital from large banks and corporations, but there’s also been a lot of criticism about these because you see the projects resulting in large well-heeled institutions walking away with huge tax credits and public subsidy. And a lot of people find that a little bit unsettling. That’s an ongoing issue. There have been critics that argue that these corporations and banks shouldn’t be benefiting, but it’s a trade off. How do you get access to that capital without them getting some benefit as well,

Carrie: Encouraging them to invest in these programs as opposed to just investing in big national programs and things? 

Peter: Certainly.

Greg: There’s only so many ways you can get there. You know, you can just grant or you can incentivize corporations to put their equity in a project. But the bottom line is, the reason these things don’t happen on their own without either some kind of government grant or some kind of equity investment by a corporation, is simply because the math doesn’t work. Absent those things, you can’t borrow money to build affordable housing and then hope to somehow have rents that are affordable to the people who you’re trying to serve. It just doesn’t work. You can’t borrow money because the interest payback would require you to raise the rents higher than would be the point. So you’ve got to do one of those things. 

Certainly within Maine, one of the things we are most focused on as the creation of a state affordable housing tax credit that would serve to leverage into Maine some federal tax credits that we’re currently not accessing. And in so doing, increase the annual rate of production of affordable housing in our state by 50%. A bill to create a new state affordable housing tax credit was proposed by Representative Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford last year. And that bill went very far through the legislative process and almost got over the finish line at the end of June last year when the legislature wrapped up, it was carried over to the new session. So it is going to be taken up in the session that’s going to begin next week. And so that is a proposal that would be a significant step forward in creating about a thousand new affordable housing units across the state over an eight year period. That is something that within our sector, there’s a lot of buzz about right now. 

Greg: Another one that’s beginning to get into the conversation is this sort of patchwork of local zoning and land use laws that serve to artificially reduce the supply of housing development. Not necessarily affordable housing development on say, rent restricted housing, but just housing general. 

Carrie: Can you give an example? 

Greg: Sure. There are communities all across Maine, all across America, that require extremely large acreage for every unit of housing that gets built. And so you might have a particular town that would say, Hey, in this half of our town, it’s single family only and you’ve got to have two acres of land for each unit of housing. And what that does is it just artificially messes with the market in a way that reduces the supply of housing that would exist. And that means housing for everybody. That means the very kind of common experience of say a senior who’s been living in an old farm house and needs to exit that farmhouse cause it’s much too big now and is looking for something more appropriate ends up getting on wait lists for tax credit properties in Portland or Westbrook or wherever. When, if there were accessory dwelling units or you know, duplexes instead of only single family units in many of those communities, they would have more options. They would not have to leave their community in order to find housing. 

Because our zoning and land use laws are in many places just so hyper restrictive and this isn’t just Maine. This is a national problem that presidential candidates, the Trump administration, I think everybody is beginning to focus on more and more as a sort of a way that the market is being kind of unduly suppressed and it’s having the impact of lowering the supply of housing, which everybody has studied. Supply and demand knows that that increases the price of housing. And so it’s a no cost way of trying to address these issues that a lot of communities around the country are now looking at. And that’s happening. That conversation is now happening in Maine and a bill is going to be debated in the coming legislative session that would form a commission to dive into these issues and recommend bills for the 2021 legislative session. Where there might be an opportunity to make some positive change in Maine.

Carrie: And look at things through a current lens as opposed to an older style lens of who we are as a community. 

Greg: Yes, exactly. 

Carrie: Opportunities Zones. Peter, you want to take that one? 

Peter: Sure. In the 2017 federal tax act, hidden somewhere in the corner, was the authorization of Opportunities Zones, which essentially would provide a tax incentive for investors to invest in designated geographical areas. And there was a lot of buzz about that. That was one of the few progressive pieces in that tax act, other than the continuation of some of the low income housing tax credit and new markets tax credits. It’s an idea that is not new. It’s something similar to some of the Reagan Administration policies, similar to some of the Clinton Administration policies. It’s just a new version of this kind of geographical opportunity. I think the way it’s played out after some initial excitement has been very mixed. It’s up to the state leadership, governmental leadership, to define what geographical area is an Opportunity Zone and they can define places that are really in need and can attract useful investment for community development. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of examples around the country of areas chosen that are actually quite well off and are getting those kinds of tax favored investments that don’t quite fit with the rhetoric around Opportunities Zones. 

Greg: An example of how it can work is, in Maine we have a lot of old paper mills that used to employ a whole lot of people. Now those communities have suffered as a result [of closures]. There is a paper mill in Lincoln, Maine that happens to be within an Opportunity Zone. It was named one of Maine’s Opportunities Zones and what’s happening there is investors are reopening that factory, but repurposing it as a place in which cross laminated timber is going to get manufactured. Cross laminated timber being a new approach to building that can be a substitute for steel and concrete and involves essentially gluing together pieces of wood in a way that keeps them as structurally sound as steel or concrete wood, but obviously results in a whole lot better gain for our efforts to reduce carbon emissions when you are using wood in buildings instead of steel and concrete.

There is not a single CLT (cross laminated timber) factory in New England. But that factory, thanks to the Opportunity Zone investments, is going to open I think next year and start producing cross laminated timber for use all around the country. When we were fortunate enough to have Nina working with us this past summer at Avesta, she was helping us to reach a construction loan closing on a project just about a mile from where we sit right now in Portland. It is going to be the first property in all of Maine to take advantage of cross laminated timber. Unfortunately we’re paying $50,000 for it to be put on a train from Montana to get to the property so that we can, you know, use it at the site. If it was coming from Lincoln, we’d have saved even more money that way. And the people of Lincoln have jobs making this. 

So all of that is to say what’s going on here is that the Opportunity Zone investment in Lincoln is opening a factory for a 21st century purpose. That is gonna improve our efforts to establish a strong green economy in Maine and we’ll be using it hopefully going forward to build affordable housing in a more environmentally friendly way, and cheaper, less expensive construction costs in the end. So we’re excited about that. 

Carrie: And this is something, Nina, that you care a lot about, right? This environmental sustainability piece, you want to talk about this a little bit? Cause what an opportunity. 

Nina: So initially, about a year ago, I didn’t know much about affordable housing and I figured that where there’s tight money building needs to be in an cheaply and probably environmental concerns would not be put at the forefront of the budget. But I was really happy to see that at Avesta, at least at Avesta, I’m not sure more widely, but environmental concerns were pretty high on the developer’s minds. Avesta is actually even putting together a data sheet showing where they are able, where they can get enough money to invest in more environmentally friendly building techniques. They compared those buildings with buildings that are just built to code, and show that the cost savings over time of maintaining those buildings in order to prove that it actually does save money in the long run, even if they’re slightly higher upfront costs.

Greg: So that’s a wonderful opportunity to be a leader in environmental sustainability. Whenever you build affordable housing in Maine, you make a promise to the public, literally to the Maine state housing authority, but really to the public at large, you have to in documents promise to keep it affordable for 45 years. And so when you’re doing that, when you’re making that kind of promise, you’re not just focused on the upfront costs of building it. You got to look 45 years down the road and make sure that your ability to operate it, within your very kind of restricted income opportunities. When you’re talking about income at affordable housing properties you’re talking about rent levels that get set by the government and they are meant to keep the property affordable. So knowing that your revenue is going to be restricted like that, you got to look for ways to build the building in a way that you can maintain it affordably and efficiently for a long time. And so that’s why organizations like Avesta and others have to look at these things more long-term.

Carrie: Did you want to add something, Peter?

Peter: In terms of environmental sustainability, it’s part of the DNA of a lot of development organizations, community development organizations. 

Carrie: Can you explain that? 

Peter: Coastal Enterprises, Inc. is perhaps the leading rural community development financial institution, certainly in the Northeast and perhaps one of the leading institutions in the country. It’s based in Brunswick, Maine. They do a wide range of community development finance for industrial development, for small business development, for housing development and the like. They go into every project looking at the environmental impact and trying to maximize environmental responsibility as part of any sort of economic development plan. So it’s about not just social goals, not just about building successful businesses, but also about environmental sustenance.

Carrie: So again, deeply critical to a robust community. 

Peter: Absolutely.

Carrie: Join us next week as we continue our conversation about community economic development and affordable housing.

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The information provided in this podcast by the University of Maine System acting through the University of Maine Graduate and Professional Center is for general educational and informational purposes only. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and speakers and do not represent the official policy or position of the university.