Bayside moratorium, Riverside shelter, possible referendum: Portland’s homeless hang in the balance

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While a Portland City Council committee this week may select a developer for a homeless shelter planned on Riverside Street, opponents are continuing their efforts to bring a referendum that would block the project.

The City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee was slated to hear shelter proposals Tuesday, after the Phoenix’s deadline. Staff has recommended the committee select a bid from Developers Collaborative.

Portland’s Bayside neighborhood contains many of the city’s providers of services and shelter to the homeless. (Courtesy city of Portland/Bayside Neighborhood Association)

In the meantime, city officials are progressing on a plan to at least temporarily ban new emergency shelters in the Bayside neighborhood, which is home to many of the city’s emergency and social service providers.

The Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee has recommended a moratorium on shelters in Bayside, which is the area between Interstate 295, Congress Street, Franklin Street, and Forest Avenue.

The committee reviewed a draft moratorium May 11, and the council conducted a first reading of the moratorium on Monday. Councilors could have waived a second reading and enacted the moratorium as an emergency, which requires seven affirmative votes, but the motion to waive the second reading failed 6-3, with Councilors April Fournier, Pious Ali and Andrew Zarro opposed.

As a result, the proposed moratorium will return to the council for a public hearing and vote on June 7.

The moratorium could last for 180 days and would give the city enough time to draft a permanent regulation. The city can extend the life of the moratorium twice, as long as it can demonstrate it is actively working to update the existing regulation.

The last shelter in Bayside to receive city approval was the 40-bed wellness center being developed at the former Preble Street Resource Center. Formerly a soup kitchen and resource center, the organization transitioned away from those services following medical guidance during to the coronavirus pandemic.

Opponents of the moratorium, including Preble Street and local political groups like Progressive Portland, have taken to social media and urged residents to ask their city councilors to oppose the moratorium.

Meanwhile, city staff has recommended the Housing and Economic Development Committee forward the council the proposal from Developers Collaborative to construct the 200-bed shelter on vacant, city-owned land at 654 Riverside St.

The city opted to pursue a public-private partnership after City Manager Jon Jennings said all opportunities for federal and state funding for the project were exhausted. He also said he did not want the city to continue to be in the business of owning non-revenue-producing buildings.

City councilors approved the plan for the Riverside shelter on June 17, 2019, and it took until last winter to issue the request for proposals. The HED committee has a public hearing scheduled for May 18, followed by a possible closed-door discussion. 

While the city initially estimated the new shelter would cost between $8 million and $10 million, impacts from the pandemic – including the need for increased physical distancing for those staying at the shelter – caused the cost to roughly double in price. 

Three proposals for the new shelter were received by the city: FD Stonewater’s proposal is $18.69 million, Developers Collaborative’s proposal is $19.23 million, and Fuego Blue has not disclosed a price. 

The lease payment is now expected to be between $1 million and $1.4 million for the duration of the proposed 20-year lease.

According to the city’s request for proposals, the so-called homeless services center would provide “complete wraparound services” including counseling, food, and laundry. It would have a multi-purpose room for 200 people, which would also serve as the dining area for buffet-style service. There would be a 200-space locker room, and men’s, women’s, and gender-neutral bathrooms and shower areas. There will be three or four meeting rooms for classes and activities.

The one-story building would be open 24/7 and replace the Oxford Street Shelter, which is not owned by the city and requires residents to leave with their personal belongings each morning. Clients often end up sleeping on floor mats at the downtown shelter because of the lack of space in the three-story building.

A group of residents going by the name Portlanders for Safer Shelters, however, has submitted a petition to the City Council for a ballot initiative that would essentially block the proposed Riverside shelter. The initiative aims to amend the city’s land use ordinance, would limit the size of new shelters to 50 beds, and would have an effective date of April 20, 2021, which is when the petition was submitted.

If successful, the initiative would remove several standards that are not appropriate for every type of shelter, set limits on shelter size, and ensure new shelters will be open 24 hours a day, except for family and domestic violence shelters.

Backers must gather 1,500 signatures from registered voters by July 1 to place the referendum question on the November ballot. Stephanie Neuts, president of Portlanders for Safer Shelters, said the group has collected around 800 signatures and members plan to be at polling stations on June 8, where they hope to collect the remainder of the required signatures. 

“I think the majority of people (we talk to) are very hopeful that the initiative will bring forward (the idea) that a 50-bed shelter is much more appropriate than a 220-bed shelter, and that hopefully, we can find a solution with smaller shelters around Portland that are open 24/7, are trauma-informed and have social services,” Neuts said.

Neuts, who said her organization now includes a coalition of homeless rights advocates, said there is continued concern about the city’s proposal. 

“What we should be more concerned with is building shelters that accommodate people of need and not accommodate a City Council or city leadership who just want to get something done, as opposed to helping people that are asking for smaller shelters,” she said. “We’re hopeful the city will listen, and if not the city, we’re hopeful the voters will.”

Questions slow Brown Street housing proposal

City councilors Monday unanimously sent a proposal for nearly 300 units of new downtown rental housing, half of which would be affordable, back to the committee level for additional discussion.

The proposal for 45 Brown St. is uncommon: it seeks a new tax increment financing district on top of a different TIF district that already exists. The existing district would encapsulate a parking garage for the building, while a new affordable housing TIF district would be needed for the residential units above.

The property currently has a dilapidated garage, which went into foreclosure in 2016 along with the Time & Temperature Building at 477 Congress St.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, chair of the Housing and Economic Development Committee,  said the committee struggled with the proposal. He moved to have the council send it back to the committee for additional discussion, and said over the course of several meetings, the panel could not “come to a full agreement on how to proceed.”

Even after a council workshop at the end of April, Thibodeau said, he still assumed the proposal would have an uphill battle getting council approval. He said the committee struggled with the size of the project related to the TIF impacts, and how unusual a project it was.

Councilor Andrew Zarro suggested the city make sure the developer, Presidium Real Estate, knows the council may not see the plan again until the fall since the councilors typically meet only once a month during the summer.

Half of the projects 282 units would have affordable housing restrictions for 30 years. There would be 81 units for households at or below 80 percent of the area median income; 27 units for households at or below 100 percent AMI, and 33 units for households at or below 120 percent AMI.

In total, there would be 116 studio apartments, 126 one-bedroom apartments, and 40 two-bedroom apartments. While the studios and one-bedroom units would have various levels of affordability restrictions, the two-bedroom units would all be rented at market rate.

— Colin Ellis

City budget vote hits speedbump

The City Council will be slightly late in approving the municipal operating budget for fiscal year 2022 because the Finance Committee needed additional time to discuss federal funding options.

Councilor Nick Mavodones, chair of the Finance Committee, said review of the $212 million budget proposal from City Manager Jon Jennings was slightly delayed because the committee took additional time to “better understand” incoming funds from the American Rescue Plan.

The city received $46.2 million in federal funding from ARP, and the 2022 budget proposes to use $8.75 million of that to offset revenue losses related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re a little behind the normal schedule, but the Finance Committee will have its work done in a timely fashion,” Mavodones said.

Although the council didn’t approve the 2021 budget until last September due to the pandemic, typically it approves the municipal operating budget in late May. The $125.2 million school department budget, which has been approved by the Council, will go to a voter referendum on June 8.

Councilors Monday agreed to postpone three of the 10 agenda items related to the budget until their next regular meeting on June 7.

Mavodones said the Finance Committee should finish its discussions this Thursday. If there are any changes to the items read for the first time by the council on Monday, he said, they would come back as amendments.

The orders that were postponed had to do with a required liability program; fees and rental agreements for the Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, and collection of delinquent personal property taxes.

— Colin Ellis

Portland city councilors approved a lease agreement Monday night that will move the city’s Health and Human Services Department to this two-story building at 39 Forest Ave. in the city’s Arts District. Maine College of Art plans to renovate the building next door as a residence hall. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Council OKs moving health, social services to Forest Ave. building

Portland city councilors unanimously approved a plan to consolidate the city’s health and human services programs in a single leased building at 39 Forest Ave.

In an unusually brief meeting Monday night – a roughly two-hour regular meeting and a workshop on the June 8 election that lasted just over 10 minutes – councilors swiftly approved the plan to move various social service and administrative functions out of City Hall and offices on India and Lancaster streets.

While previous public response to the proposal included considerable pushback about the city’s lack of appropriate outreach to neighbors before announcing the plan, Monday night’s meeting drew very little public comment. Two of the most vocal concerned parties had been the Maine College of Art and its partner Redfern Properties, which are planning to create a residence hall in a building next door; no one representing either MECA or Redfern addressed councilors Monday night.

The city has stepped up its efforts to get the message out. In addition to an announcement at an April 13 Health and Human Services Committee meeting, the city on April 16 released a survey for Needle Exchange clients; Portland Downtown hosted a virtual forum on April 23; mailers were sent to abutters during the week of April 26; staff met with the Bayside Neighborhood Association on May 4; the city held a virtual community forum on May 5, and on May 26 staff plan to meet with the Parkside Neighborhood Association. There have also been meetings with MECA and Redfern.

George Rheault and Ken Capron, two individuals who routinely speak at council meetings and often chastise councilors, pushed back at HHS Director Kristen Dow’s assertion that the city did extensive outreach.

Rheault said the city conducted no public outreach before the HHS Committee took up the proposal, and said the city did not give the public enough opportunities for discussion. The HHS Committee originally had not been slated to hear public comment at the April 13 meeting when the plan was announced, and it was only after several people spoke during an April 12 council meeting that the city said there would be public comment. Councilors first heard about the plan on April 9.

Capron, meanwhile, said it wasn’t clear what the city’s target was for what is considered adequate notice. He said this proposal didn’t receive “half the attention it should have,” and added it was unclear how many people actually attended the meetings the city held on the subject.

“If you’re trying to reach five people, great job,” Capron said. “But if you’re trying to reach 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000? I don’t think you’re anywhere near that.”

Several councilors said they toured the 37,000-square-foot building, formerly leased by MaineHealth, and said that contributed to their support of the proposal. Councilor April Fournier, for example, said after touring the building she had a better understanding of how it would serve clients.

“The flow definitely meets our needs,” she said.

Councilor Belinda Ray said the building “feels like it was built for these purposes. … This can be a one-stop-shop, and that’s incredibly helpful when you’re trying to get people these services.”

Mayor Kate Snyder said she is “enthusiastic” about the plan, and Councilor Mark Dion praised the building as a benefit for clients and staff.

“It’s incumbent to provide workspaces where staff feels valued and can perform to their best,” Dion said. “This project does that. This is a good day for the clients, and this is an equally good day for the staff.”

The building will house the Needle Exchange Program now on India Street and General Assistance, which is on Lancaster Street. Some administrative positions at City Hall will also be moved to the building in the Arts District.

City staff has said they have run out of space for growth at all three locations.

Dow said the plan is to begin renovations on the second floor of the building in June and start moving administrative staff in during July and August. She said services currently on Lancaster Street will move in August. Originally, the lease on Lancaster was scheduled to end on July 1, but Dow said the city was able to negotiate an extension.

The plan is to have all the services up and running on Forest Avenue by Nov. 1.

City officials first toured the 39 Forest Ave. property in February 2020, but halted the project due to the coronavirus pandemic. The building owner reached back out to the city last winter because it was still available.

Dow said the building will provide the city with more opportunities for expansion, which Lancaster and India streets can’t provide. For example, she said the city has funding for a new public health diversion program, but didn’t have space to create it. This program can connect new clients with social services to keep them from having to need to access emergency shelters in the future.

Consolidation will also save the city some money, although not a considerable amount. The annual rent for India and Lancaster streets is just over $280,000 while the rent at 39 Forest Ave. would be $277,500.

Steven Scharf, another frequent council critic, said he thought the city should have looked at using the School Department administration building on Cumberland Avenue, which he said the city is considering selling.

“I would hate to think we’re going to be sitting on this (Cumberland Avenue) white elephant for years while we’re spending on a lease on another property,” he said.

— Colin Ellis

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