Pipeline grows, but demand for affordable housing continues to surge

Focus: Southern Maine

Dana Totman, left, and Greg Payne of Avesta Housing, a leading developer of affordable housing.
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Nathan Szanton, president of Szanton Co., and Amy Cullen, the company’s development officer, at the site of a future affordable housing development for seniors in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood.

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Katie Shorey, a marketing officer at People’s United Bank in Portland, lives in Westbrook and commutes to her job in Portland. She is among the young professionals that have sought more abundant housing options in Portland’s suburbs.

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In Maine, the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $974. To afford this level of rent and utilities — without paying more than 30% of income on housing — a household must earn $3,247 monthly of $38,966 annually. Assuming a 40-year work week, 52 weeks a year, this level of income translates into an hourly housing wage as listed below.

Minimum wage: $11.00

Average renter wage: $11.44

2-bdrm. housing wage: $18.73

Source: National Income Housing Coalition, "Out of Reach: The HIgh Cost of Housing 2018."

178 Kennebec St., West Bayside, Portland: 51 units of senior housing (age 55 and older), of which 40 will be income-restricted and 11 market-rate units

Developer: Szanton Co. with Ross Furman

Contractors: Archetype Architects and Herbert Construction

Construction timeline: June 2019 to July 2020

58 Boyd St., East Bayside, Portland: 55 units of family housing (50% subsidized with rental assistance, 30% affordable, 20% market rate)

Developer: Portland Housing Development Corp.

Architect, contractor: CWS Architects, Wright-Ryan Construction

Construction timeline: Early May start

Deering Place, 510 Cumberland Ave., Portland: 75-unit mixed-income development, rehab and new construction

Architect, contractors: Archetype Architects, Zachau Construction

Construction timeline: Late-summer start, occupancy by summer 2020

Brighton Ave. and Wessex St., Portland: 40 one-bedroom apartments for seniors (55 and older)

Construction timeline: Groundbreaking in late summer

West End Apartments, 586 Westbrook St., South Portland: 64 units of non-age-restricted housing, mixed-use and mixed-income new construction

Architect: Kaplan Thompson Architects

Construction timeline: Start in early fall

by Renee Cordes

"It’s clean, it’s good, it’s safe," Christine Jimenez says of the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her 14-year old daughter in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. "I feel good here."

Being on the first floor and close to public transportation are big pluses, as is the garden plot where the two have grown lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, green peppers, radishes and cilantro. "My daughter loves the garden."

Jimenez, 51, is originally from New York and has been in Portland for 21 years. Unable to work right now because of knee and hip problems, she lives on Social Security. She moved into the apartment three years ago after a few months on a waiting list at Avesta Housing, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing in southern Maine and New Hampshire.

"I lucked out, so I’m happy," she says.

Her building, known as Pearl Place, is among 87 Avesta properties containing around 2,400 units of below-market-rate dwellings. Pearl Place, built in 2008, boasts 60 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments that are rented for $850 to $1,400 a month to tenants meeting certain income restrictions. Nearby, Pearl Place II added 54 family apartments in 2013.

While there are different ways to define affordable housing, it’s typically understood to mean paying less than 30% of one’s income on gross housing costs, including utilities.

Jimenez found an apartment through Avesta relatively quickly as the clock was ticking on her previous lease. But for many the wait can last years, as applicant numbers keep rising, far outnumbering vacancies (4,046 applicants for 373 vacancies in 2018 alone).

"The demand far exceeds the supply," says Dana Totman, Avesta’s president and CEO. "We tell all new applicants that the best we can probably do is to put you on a wait list. We encourage them to get on as many lists as possible, and to work with us to advocate for affordable housing."

With more than 3,000 now on the waiting list, Totman says this year’s priority will be to create more affordable housing for seniors, as well as immigrants and the homeless.

"Bigger cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Boston also have affordable housing challenges, but some have probably done a better job with the human service delivery system. We really need to do a better job in helping homeless folks here in Maine," he says.

That’s a tall order given a statewide housing crunch felt most acutely in Maine’s biggest city, the state’s priciest for renters.

Disparity between wages and rents

A 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition in Washington points to a shortage in Maine of affordable rentals for low-income households, many of whom spend more than half their income on housing. It notes that they are more likely to sacrifice other necessities like food and health care to pay rent, and to experience unstable situations like evictions.

Among households with extremely low income — with incomes below the poverty guideline or 30% of their area median — a third are disabled, 31% are seniors and 30% are in the labor force. Single caregivers and others make up the rest.

The report compares rents and wages nationally and in every state, county and city.

To afford a two-bedroom rental in greater Portland without paying more than 30% of income, a worker would have to earn $25.92 an hour, or what’s known as the housing wage, more than twice the $11 an hour minimum wage as of Jan 1. York County is nearly as expensive.

Other data, from the Maine State Housing Authority, shows that in Portland where there are more than 18,000 renter households, close to 60% can’t afford the $1,107 monthly average for rent and utilities on a two-bedroom place.

A victim of its own economic success, Portland’s growing attraction to tourists and out-of-state transplants has priced a lot of locals off the peninsula — which in turn could have long-term negative consequences.

"We need a long-range plan," says Joseph McDonnell, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, "to make sure the city is livable, not just for the gentry, but for different levels of income."

Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, has a similar view. "As a region and as a state we have so much to offer, but we won’t be able to attract people to the Greater Portland area if they can’t afford to live here," she says.

Projects in the works

Greg Payne, a development officer at Avesta and director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, says two things are needed to address the housing shortage — more construction and federal assistance.

"The gap between supply and demand is widening, and with any luck a year from now it won’t be wider," he says.

On the supply side, Avesta has several projects in the pre-construction pipeline — three in the Portland area, one in South Portland and one in Lewiston.

The largest is Deering Place, at 510 Cumberland Ave. in Portland, a 75-unit mixed-income development designed by Archetype Architects and to be built by Zachau Construction. The development will include a major renovation of 13 existing units and the construction of two new residential buildings on adjacent lots. Thirty apartments will be market-rate and 45 will be affordable, targeting individuals and families with annual incomes of $25,000 to $60,000 for monthly rents ranging from $750 to $1,200.

Totman says that all the projects have "seven or eight layers of financing," and that Avesta is seeking funding on a number of others.

In the meantime, he says there’s still a long wait list for the new 37-unit Carleton Street Apartments, in Portland’s West End, and Huston Commons, completed in 2017 to provide stable housing for 30 chronically homeless individuals with significant medical conditions in partnership with Preble Street and the Portland Housing Authority.

The Portland Housing Authority also has its own project in pre-construction in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, 55 family housing units, half of which will be subsidized with rental assistance, 30% classified as affordable and the rest market-rate.

A mile away in West Bayside, Szanton Co. is getting ready to break ground this June on 55 units of senior housing in its first Portland project in a decade.

"We’re really happy to be back in Portland," says the company’s president, Nathan Szanton. "If you’re focusing on the peninsula, Bayside is the place."

Located at 178 Kennebec St., 40 units will be income-restricted and 11 market-rate, according to project lead Amy Cullen, a Szanton Co. development officer.

"The units all look the same," she says, "so nobody knows who’s low-income and who’s not, so almost all of our projects read as market-rate housing."

She also prefers the term affordable to low-income, which can carry a stigma: "The vast majority of people that are in our low-income apartments are working — they’re just at the lower end of the wage scale."

While there are various financing options to develop affordable housing, Cullen notes that it’s a low-margin undertaking, and sees Portland’s new development impact fees as a hurdle.

"Every dollar more a city or a town requires is one more dollar of public money — either subsidy, tax credits or tax-exempt financing — we have to ask for," she adds.

Another bottleneck in the system is the long waiting list for so-called Section 8 federal housing vouchers — 2,300 in Portland alone out of 17,000 statewide, according to Portland Housing Authority Executive Director Mark B. Adelson, who says the wait time can be two to three years.

"In most cases they have housing but they’re just paying an extraordinary amount on rent," Adelson says.

There are also around 100 households with vouchers who can’t find landlords to accept them, prompting the organization to post a "Landlords Wanted" plea on its website. "It’s still an owner’s market, but if it’s loosening up we want them to consider us and participate in the program," he adds.

Suburban migration

On the policy side, affordable housing is a priority, with Gov. Janet Mills in January signing an order to release the first $500,000 of a long-stalled $15 million senior housing bond. A week later, the Portland City Council approved a requirement that hotel developers build low-income housing or pay a fee, irking some in the industry.

"I don’t think it’s fair that the council is singling out hotels to solve a larger problem, one which I’m not convinced hotels are creating," says Jim Brady of Fathom Cos. "This will drive investment elsewhere."

That’s already happening to an extent in communities such as Westbrook and as far afield as Windham, which are seeing a rise in population — and economic development — as Portland gets more expensive for both families and young professionals. Take Katie Shorey, who commutes to her job at People’s United Bank on Fore Street from Westbrook, which takes about half an hour most mornings.

"I don’t think you’d find one-bedroom condos for under $250,000 in Portland, but you can get a house with two to three bedrooms for that in Westbrook," says Shorey, who lives in a three-bedroom house with her boyfriend and their golden retriever, Harley.

Back in Bayside, Christine Jimenez hopes to stay at Avesta’s Pearl Place for a long time, saying, "I’m not going anywhere."

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