Neighborhood by neighborhood: Community leaders offer solutions to Portland’s housing crisis

Featured Drone Photography by: Dylan Chauvin, @lifeof_d Drone Photography by: Dylan Chauvin, @lifeof_d

Please note: All the average 2 bedroom rent figures, featured in the subheads introducing each neighborhood are according to the Portland Press Herald's "No Vacancy," an incredibly detailed report on the housing crisis, that took months to compile accurate data for. 

The Portland we once knew and loved is gone. That’s the general impression after talking to several longtime locals about one of Portland’s long gestating, but ever pressing issues: the housing crisis.


“I love Portland and have lived there for many years,” said a woman named Doreen, who now lives in Augusta. “I miss it terribly, but it’s too expensive now.”


With all the mass evictions, huge spikes in rental prices and the competitively cutthroat housing market, it’s clear the city is changing. Rich and middle-class newcomers flock to Portland, spurred by national press lauding our city as one of the best/coziest/tastiest/safest small cities in America. But usually only the wealthy, or extremely lucky can find a place to live on the peninsula, because rents are high and median incomes are down. Some say landlords are taking advantage of this huge demand by requiring expensive application fees, denying people with housing vouchers, and raising existing rents to scary heights. The affordability gap in Portland is growing.


Average market rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland have risen up 40 percent in the past five years. Meanwhile Portland’s population increase comes at a time where there are fewer options for affordable housing than ever before, effectively leaving the homeless and middle class without decent housing options. Within a minute a short Craiglist search on rentals in Portland, yielded a 2 bedroom penthouse condo on the Eastern Promenade, going for a $6000-$10000 a month. While that is an extreme case, listings like that are being more and more common on Maine's Cragislist site.


“After living my entire life in Portland, I moved to Old Orchard because I was able to buy my own place for less than renting in Portland,” said local Andy Martin. “Others should try it.”


The widely agreed upon rule is that households should not pay more than 30 percent of their income towards rent. According to the Press Herald, Portland’s median income of rental households in 2014 was $30,601 and its median rent was $1,310, the city is far below the affordability standard. Median rents would need to be around $765 if a lot of the people that work in Portland also want to live here affordably.


The result of all this? Well, it’s one you might see the effects of on your walk downtown, or your drive to the grocery store; more impoverished people begging on the streets, while the middle class move to the suburbs and the transient wealthy snatch up properties with pleasant seaside views, raising the price of surrounding properties. Longtime community staples, like shops and eateries fold under the pressure. While the community of Portland is as diverse and vibrant as ever, the fabric, character and design of the city is being redefined; the way growing cities across the country do while adjusting to gentrification in the free market system.


“Free market is not going to ensure that Portland maintains its unique character and charm or provides enough affordable housing for everyone,” said Tom MacMillan from the Portland Tenant’s Union. “Portland has a city motto, ‘Yes, Life's good here.’ What makes life good here (in Portland and East Bayside) could be lost without a vision and the ability to hold on to what makes us great.”



So what can be done to reverse this trend that might result in Portland becoming a playground for the wealthy looking for a picturesque spot to plop their next summer home or business venture? That’s where Portland’s newly formed Housing Committee and the leaders of the Neighborhood Associations come in. They’ve got plenty of ideas. The Housing Committee has five members including:  Councilors Jill Duson (Chair), David Brenerman (Vice Chair), Nick Mavodones, Belinda Ray and Spencer Thibodeau. They’ve been hosting public forums twice a month to address this issue.


“The lack of quality, affordable housing has reached crisis proportions,” said Mayor Ethan Strimling. “That’s why we restructured the housing committee to confront this crisis, and why I set a goal to permit 2,000 units of market-rate, workforce and affordable housing within the next five years. I look forward to seeing the Committee’s work.”


It should be noted that Portland has been doing some good work to combat the housing shortage already: large development projects must now include some amount of affordable units, zoning changes have encouraged more density, and the city has recently supported an eight-unit workforce housing project on Munjoy Hill.


But across Portland, many call for more action.


At a special housing committee meeting last month at King Middle School in Portland, representatives from 14 neighborhood associations presented their concerns and potential solutions to a panel of city staff. Because of the complex nature of this issue and ramifications that affect people from all walks of life, the solutions are just as multifaceted. Here at the Phoenix, we’ve compiled the opinions and ideas of some our community leaders, so that Portland’s leaders can take action on this affordable housing shortage, neighborhood by neighborhood.


Munjoy Hill, the East End — Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,829

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There might be no better place to observe the effects of gentrification then on Munjoy Hill, a neighborhood that went from housing the poor, to one of the hottest rental spots in the city. There, million-dollar condos are rising out of the landscape, scattered between aging two- and three-story, multi-family homes. High-end restaurants and markets are replacing the mom-n-pop shops of the past. People that have lived there for decades, are being priced out by dramatically rising rents for the first time.


Linda Bancroft, a member of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said that many in her community disagree on how effective the R6 (residential) zoning changes last year have been. The changes, which went into effect last year, include a reduced minimum lot size, reduced front setbacks, a lower minimum lot area per dwelling unit, and a higher allowable lot coverage, from 40-50 percent to 60 percent. The goal of these changes was to enable small infill development on existing lots and relax the on-peninsula parking standard to enable small lot development of two to four unit structures.


Some on the Hill believe that these changes have caused a feeding frenzy of development rather than solve the underlying issues it was intended to alleviate.


When it came through [the R6 zoning changes] it was controversial,” said Jay Norris, the president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization. “Revisiting it would allow for better home development and for some requirements in how much affordable housing goes into multi family units.”


Norris and Bancroft pointed to other solutions. For one, the burden on property owners is too great. With the (2.3 percent) projected property tax increase, a new landlord-focused rental registration fee and an increase in water and sewer fees, property owners are sometimes forced to raise their rents just to mitigate costs. The city should address this burden on owners and simultaneously create tax incentives for developers to build affordable housing, they said.


According to Norris, the city should also consider putting restrictions on the amount of Airbnb offerings, an online room/apartment rental service that he deems “threatening.” Apartments and studios that could be occupied by locals are instead rented out to ocean-breeze loving travelers for upwards of $150 a night. When someone’s not renting, the space goes unused.


“People are getting more money renting a space with Airbnb,” said Norris. “Without a doubt, it’s contributing to the housing crisis.”


A last solution, suggested by the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization last month, was a fairly straightforward one: create a separate and dedicated Housing Commission team, made up of property owners, Portland voters, low income housing residents, developers, landlords, workforce housing individuals and local community and business leaders.


“These five council members are already overworked and they’re not going to get much done,” said Norris. “A housing commission could relieve some pressure and research ideas that have worked for other cities.”


From this additional research, Norris called for the development of a three-, five- and 10-year plan to examine the biggest housing issues.


“Portland is one of those cities where we talk too much,” said Norris. “Let’s bring them ideas, instead of just complain at them.”


East Bayside Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,605


Bayside is an interesting area in the midst of change. It’s the most racially diverse part of Portland, the area with the most crime, and for now, an area comprised of dusty industrial flat lands and low-income housing.


But Bayside has also recently seen trendy coffee shops, breweries, distilleries and art spaces pop up in the neighborhood. Once considered a “rough area,” Bayside is becoming a hotspot because of its proximity to downtown, and the already gentrified Munjoy Hill. People here, like in other parts of the city, are concerned about their rent rising, but are often too scared to speak up about it. Combine this sense of friction and anxiety between landdlord and tenant, and sprinkle all the complicated amount of residential and commerical zones in the area, which further disputes in Bayside, and you've got a recipe for a degraded relationship that doesn't have the foundation of trust.


“Renters who spoke about their experiences of renting in East Bayside were reluctant to put anything in writing, and those who did, wanted to do so anonymously,” said Ellen Bailey, the spokesperson for the Easy Bayside Neighborhood Association. “That, in itself, speaks to the problem of housing insecurity and the fear tenants face of no-cause evictions.”


Kate McGovern, an attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, told the Portland Press Herald, that her free legal advice company handled 1,400 landlord-tenant disputes last year.


Urban infill projects are also on everyone’s mind.


“Developers have gotten a whiff of the next hip neighborhood and started flipping houses from affordable to luxury,” said Toby Rzepka, an East Bayside resident. “Meanwhile, commercial rents have started pushing out the artists and artisans who made it hip in the first place. My biggest worry for the neighborhood is that it will end up divided between luxury homes and condos on the one hand and heavily subsidized low income housing on the other (e.g. PHA housing around Kennedy Park, Thomas Heights building on Washington).”


Many believe that Bayside has gone from neglected to selected.


Most residents of Bayside value the diversity and working-class nature of their community. The East Bayside Neighborhood Association, agreed that appropriately targeted inclusionary zoning ordinances, instituting tax incentives and home repair financing programs that foster rent stabilization, and formulating effective, loophole free, affordable housing replacement ordinances would preserve the affordability of the area, and curb the already rising rents.


Bayside residents are mostly supportive of urban infill projects and inclusionary zoning, as long as the city considers the importance of good design and accurate statistics.


In terms of urban infill projects, high density apartment complexes should be located on the edges of the neighborhood, along transit corridors, like Franklin, Congress and Marginal Way. This would preserve the single, two and three family dwellings and character of the neighborhoods core. Good design is important in urban infill projects too, to overcome the stigma of living in a big, tall ugly box and to blend in with the style of the neighborhood better. This could be accomplished by painting the walls with vibrant colors and adding porches, manicured lawns and tall bay windows. Developers should be incentivized to innovate and provide smart design solutions.


“In dense urban areas, thoughtful design and site planning is critical to developing new infill,” said Jeffrey Levine, the planning and urban development director for the city of Portland. “So often, the problem with dense development is not the density, but a design that does not fit in with the context. The zoning changes approved last year included design standards to help ensure that new development is attractive and fits in with its context.”


“Streetscapes with these types of [well-designed] housing structures are the “bedrock” of stability, continuity, and connection within a neighborhood,” said one Bayside resident. “The folks who live in and/or own these structures are much more likely to put down roots, engage in their neighborhoods, volunteer as board members or active participants in their neighborhood organizations, and actually care about their community and its residents. If these types of structures are replaced with large, multi-unit, high density apartment complexes, they will be gone forever, and so will the connective fabric of the peninsula’s neighborhood communities.”


While many residents of Bayside support the addition of “market rate” apartment projects, like Redfern’s 89 Anderson Street, the numbers, allegedly, don’t reflect the actual demographics of Bayside.


According to 2015 ESRI Community Analyst data, the median household income of residents of East Bayside is $25,592. This is substantially below the city’s median household income of $41,197 and roughly half of the county’s 2014 median household income of $59,560 (from 2014 5-yr ACS Census data).


Bailey noted that the city’s definition of “workforce” housing is based on income levels of about $75,000 (100 percent of the county's median four-family income) and said that neither of these demographic targets are reflective of current peninsula residents.


According to many disgruntled residents on the verge of being priced out, the city should re-examine the “market-rate,” and what it means for a property to be “affordable,” so that there are options for everybody.


The housing planner for the city of Portland, Tyler Norod, said that it’s part of his job to formulate housing policies and find creative ways to address the housing crisis, that benefits people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. However, the housing shortage is tremendously complex and will take many years to fully reverse, he noted.


“One of the challenges for us is, anytime we take an action as city government, it impacts a wide-range of stakeholders and issues,” said Norod. “How do you do that, walk that balance, without having unintended consequences?”


West End Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,778

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The West End has a bit of an identity crisis. One one side of the neighborhood, multi-million dollar mansions line the scenic and historic Western Promenade. On the other side, closer to downtown, is a dense concentration of low-income public housing and single-to-multi family homes. It’s a fairly affluent, walkable and family-oriented neighborhood.


At the housing committee meeting, the West End Neighborhood Association offered solutions to the housing crisis that included: re-examining the long-term housing goals of the city, addressing the “psychological demand” to live on the peninsula, promoting an “age-friendly” city through projects like Aging in Place, and a program similar to New Neighbors, which encouraged owner-occupied multis back in the '90s. Back then, young couples would buy up derelict properties and spruce them up with some hard-work and design, before living in them and offering affordable rents. The WENA fears such a program can’t exist now, because there’s “too much greed in the market.”


“When a house has double or tripled in value in 15 years, how can working class people keep up," asked one representative from the West End.


Despite the demand to live in the West End, there’s still a proliferation of derelict, unused properties in the area (and all over the city). Properties that owners refuse to sell, create fire-hazards, eye-sores and prevent three-story housing units being built in the space.


A representative at the WENA meeting asked, “Could the city provide an ordinance to penalize buildings that haven’t been lived in and give tax relief to landlords for rental unit improvements?”



Back Cove Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,539


Back Cove, with its beautiful walking trail, expansive Payson Park, and private Jesuit high-school, is where most of Portland’s affluent families and senior citizens live.


The median age of Backcove’s residents is 43, the highest of any neighborhood in the city. One in four of the neighborhoods residents are over the age of 60. Its residents are also making the most money (median of $37,560 in 2013) and are the least racially diverse.


Len Freeman, the chair of the Back Cove Neighborhood Association, stressed that it’s important to consider the needs of our city’s senior citizens when discussing the overall housing shortage. After all, many of them have worked, lived and made Portland what it is, all their lives. Shouldn’t the city make sure they’re taken care of?


Because the number of Portland’s seniors will likely double by 2030, Freeman suggested more “age in place” initiatives like the one she’s exploring in Back Cove Village.


“The city can’t build enough housing to accommodate all the new seniors,” said Freeman. “But it can help them remain in their homes as they continue to age, help them participate in their communities, and help the neighborhood maintain its intergenerational flavor.”


Parkside/Oakdale Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,444


There’s a lot of diversity in Parkside, and not just in race, but in income levels and living situations. The neighborhood that spans from Forest Avenue to Weymouth Street, and Congress Street to Deering Oaks Park has a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, condos and subsidized housing. Despite the picturesque area, Parkside considered grungy by many.


It's probably because Parkside's often the meeting place for many of Portland’s troubled residents, like drug addicts, alcoholics and petty criminals. However the area also houses young students and immigrant families that live there without fear of assault of theft. There's an increased police presence in the nieghborhood now, and the generally the worst experience you'll have is a homeless person yelling at you for some change, or some drunk hooligans on a park bench.


It might take a while for Parkside to shed its sketchy stereotype, but it’s not deterring the high-earning professionals from moving into the area after run down apartments get transformed into high-end condos. Partly because of this, many residents here have experienced either no-cause evictions or raised rents without the necessary upgrades. Instead of paving the way for condos the city should focus not just on cleaning the streets, but holding landlords accountable for the state of their buildings, and preserving the diversity of the neighborhoods.


Emma Holder, the president of the Parkside Neighborhood Association talked about these unaddressed apartment upgrades at last month’s housing committee meeting. Much of the subsidized housing units in Parkside are in poor condition, with absentee landlords. Maine’s a cold state, and if these buildings are heated in an in-efficient manner, the costs will continue to rise. General upgrades around the neighborhood, will help shed the “ghetto stigma” that Parkside evokes and create more “invested residents,” that live in a clean and safe environment. These improvements would yield an effect that all neighborhoods in Portland could benefit from: eased tensions and better relationships between landlords and tenants.


“The city can nurture this environment by considerations such as improved pedestrian lighting, sidewalk repair, street cleaning, and enforcement of ordinance regarding trash and discarded furniture,” said Holder.


Oakdale neighborhood, known for its beautiful abundance of oak trees, is right next to Parkside and is one of the more affordable places to rent in Portland. But, because of its proximity to the University of Southern Maine’s campus, it’s mostly dominated by young students. If USM considered building dormitories for their Portland students, affordable, single family space could open up for Parkside’s immigrant community, alleviating some spacing issues.  


Deering Center Average Two-Bedroom Rent $1,461


The geographic heart of Portland, Deering Center, is sometimes regarded as one of the “best kept secrets,” in terms of living situations. With the average rent hovering around $1,461, below the city-wide average, and wide, tree-lined streets close to time saving businesses, Deering Center is a desirable neighborhood.


Deering Center is an example of the kind of up and coming, micro-community that Portland could leverage to house the people that can’t find a liveable space on the peninsula. But before that can happen, its current housing stock of one to two family homes, needs to be expanded to include affordable housing blocks. If developers are given incentives to build affordable housing blocks along major thoroughfares like Forest and Brighton Avenue, fairly depressed areas that offer straight, easy commutes from Deering Center to Portland’s downtown, fewer people would move to Westbrook and Gorham.


Urban infill spilling into the Deering community would be good news. The redevelopment of vacated schools and institutional buildings, could also create new housing options in this working-class neighborhood. But in order to assure that Deering continues to grow more attractive to potential individuals and families, they need to have reliable transportation to Portland’s cultural core.


What’s interesting about the presidents and representatives of Portland’s neighborhood associations, is that they all came up with similar solutions to their own micro-community issues, without speaking or planning together before hand. This suggests that initiatives proposed by Munjoy Hill for example, might work for, say, East Bayside or Deering. In the case of public transportation, most neighborhood representatives agreed that Portland could use more of those services. An increased variety in public transport options and routes, would discourage car usage (and the subsequent space needed for parking), while also addressing the “psychological demand to live on the peninsula.”  Most people that are itching to live downtown, would probably settle for Deering Center, if they knew they could zip into the Old Port, quickly, easily and affordably.


The city of Portland needs to encourage building projects within our fringe neighborhoods, expand the transit services and gently nudge people off the peninsula so they’ll find neighborhoods with enough shops, space and charms to make their lives as enjoyable as it might be downtown.    


Bold, multi-faceted action is needed

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Public intervention is absolutely necessary if Portland is going to face this affordability crisis. Here at the Phoenix we’ve gathered for you solutions posed by the leaders that live and work in various Portland neighborhoods. According to them, the city could do things like: sell publicly owned property at a discount, ban no-cause evictions, require a fee for Airbnb units, fully fund the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund, continue inclusionary zoning, penalize absentee landlords, apply for national renovation grants like the ISTEA and Tiger Fund, revisit affordability standards, upgrade derelict properties, encourage owners to sell abandoned properties, keep design in mind for urban infill projects, facilitate better landlord tenant relationships, provide more public transportation and create incentives for developers to build off the peninsula. But these aren’t even all the ideas Portland has that could help turn this disturbing market trend around. A dedicated team should be hired to sift through it all, research and come up with a concrete 10-year plan.


Since the beginning of this year, the fairly new Portland Housing Committee has been gathering feedback from the community and housing experts, which has led to over 135 policy ideas and recommendations. The City Council’s Housing Committee will host a special public forum at the end of this month, so that the outside community can work through these ideas and prioritize the best ones.


Like the problem itself, the solutions are complex, but a solution to the housing crisis in a nutshell is this: existing City funds need to be reorganized and prioritized to reflect the actual demographics of Portland, and offer options for every kind of person.


“It’s about time the city takes action,” said local Wendi Saracino, and former coordinator at the Shalom House, a company that offers mental health services. “Portland is a wonderful place to live and one of the reasons it is that way is because there are people of all socioeconomic levels living here. I hope it can stay that way.”


| Housing Crisis Forum | Wednesday, May 25 from 5:30-8:00pm | USM's Wishcamper Center, 34 Bedford St., Portland |


Last modified onFriday, 20 May 2016 09:47