During her inauguration last week, Mayor Kate Snyder spoke about some of the challenges Portland faces, especially the lack of affordable housing.
The problem was brought home as people in the City Hall balcony demonstrated with signs and comments to bring attention to what they say is a crisis at a Marginal Way apartment complex that may be the last oasis for low-paid workers seeking affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city.
A group of activists and tenants at Bayside Village are trying to stop redevelopment of the building, which was built as housing for students, laid out as 100, four-bedroom quads, but now functions more as a lodging house.
Kate Sykes, co-chairwoman of the Maine branch of the Democratic Socialists of America and a member of the new People’s Housing Coalition, said immigrants being left to navigate the disruption of their housing without help is another symptom of city officials’ zeal to gentrify Portland.
“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing with our city,” Sykes said Dec. 5. “We had this big crisis with all these immigrants coming, needing to be housed, and we had to get them out of the Expo and so a whole chunk of them ended up at Bayside. Then a month later (they are being displaced).
“(The city is) not putting forward a good planned, coordinated effort for dealing with the real issues of housing on the ground. They’re doing a great job of gentrifying our city. They’re basically saying, ‘We want the professional managerial class to live here, we want the homeless people tossed out to the outskirts of the city, and we’re just going to keep whittling away at the affordable housing stock.’”
Sykes said DSA members and other activists founded the People’s Housing Coalition a few months ago as a way to bring marginally housed, homeless, recently homeless, renters, and low-income people to the table, because existing housing advocacy groups were speaking for the needs of the developers, not tenants.
The changes at Bayside Village catalyzed the formation of the group, she said.
Port Property Management, which owns 1,300 residential units in Portland, purchased the building at 132 Marginal Way for $2.1 million, according to CBRE, which brokered the sale, from Chicago-based Blue Vista Capital Management on Sept. 24.
Port Property quietly received approval from the Planning Board to convert most of the quads into market-rate one- and two-bedroom apartments. Only property owners within 500 feet of the building were notified of the application and public comment opportunities; tenants did not learn of the change of use until after the approval.
The city sold the land and two acres next to it for $1 million to Theodore West and partner Southern Maine Student Housing of Rockport in 2006, to build an office building and student dormitory. Bayside Village Student Housing also received a $1.2 million tax break over 10 years.
The property has changed hands several times, and now is occupied mainly by immigrants and service industry workers, most of whom, activists say, will be priced out of or not qualify for the renovated apartments.
The Port Property website lists requirements for its tenants, including income of 2.5 times the rent, a strong rental history, and a “risk score,” based on credit score, above 620. Bayside Village had none of these restrictions, and offered people without rental history the opportunity to start building one. With monthly rents between $649 and $699, it is one of the most affordable options in the city.
In a statement to the Planning Board Aug. 13 supporting his application to subdivide the units, Port Property Management owner Tom Watson said the conversion would improve a bad situation.
“During our due diligence I had a staff member pose as a mother of a transferring student and she called (the University of Southern Maine, Maine College of Art, and the University of New England),” Watson said, “and they all told her ‘do not let your daughter live there.’ That’s what the colleges in the area think of 132 Marginal Way.
“It’s funny, you know, they’re really not students there,” he continued. “It’s hilarious. If you go to the (former) Bayside Village apartment website, it shows this really hip couple drinking a cup of coffee with scarves and, it’s like, those people don’t live there. ”
Watson said the same stock image is used on the Beacon at Gateway website for luxury apartments in Scarborough.
When asked for clarification about Watson’s comment, Port Property spokeswoman Jessica James said it was meant to illustrate that the building was being misrepresented to potential residents, and their parents, as a college dormitory.
“Port Property Management doesn’t have a preference for any certain type of resident,” she said, “but does feel that authenticity and trust are important factors when you’re choosing where to make your home.”
Most residents are worried
Alyssa Floyd, a former resident of Bayside Village and member of the People’s Housing Coalition, said most of the building’s tenants work in the immediate area, and some hold down two or three jobs.
“The overwhelming majority are immigrants from the Congo or Angola,” Floyd said. “There are people from the Expo at Bayside Village, and now people are forgetting about them. They were given this great welcome, and now they’re like, ‘oh, we have to fend for ourselves.’”
She said most tenants depend on the building’s low rents to be able to stay and work in Portland, and noted that commuting is not an option for many who do not own vehicles.
With the news that the rents would be going up, some of these workers abandoned their Portland experiment. One tenant who worked at Luke’s Lobster in the Old Port left her job and moved back to Arizona with her mother, Floyd said.
But Sykes and Floyd said they are having difficulty organizing residents because of a language barrier, and because most immigrants do not want to risk their immigration status or asylum applications by protesting. Others are just working too much to get involved.
Several residents who passed through the entrance of the building in the early evening on Dec. 4 said they were just learning English, and many of those said they were from the Congo or Angola. Many expressed concern about the sale of the building.
“The problem is the buyer of the house – the people – outside. No good, no good,” said one resident who indicated he had lived in the building for one year and had been hoping to stay.
Kalala Luboya said “I lived here five years in this building. … I was from Congo. The change, very bad for me. I don’t know if they allow us to stay here. But I prefer to stay here. Many people are worried. Those who I live with like to stay here.”
Another who asked that his name not be published said he lived at Bayside Village since October. “I’m worried to find a house in Portland because there are so many services in Portland for me,” he said. “So if I have to move I heard it is hard to find a house in Portland. I might have to find it in South Portland and then it would be difficult to find services. … I was planning to stay for at least two years until I get stable with my work.”
He said he lives on the first floor and is being moved to another floor to make way for renovation. Asked if he was offered help in finding another apartment, he said “I think they might help, I’m not sure what is going to happen.”
John Reed, an English speaker who said he’d lived in the building for two years and had been planning on staying long term, said he, too, was told he has to move to another floor. He said he believes everyone will be kicked out when their leases expire next July. Asked if Bayside Village serves a need in the city, he said “big time, definitely.”
A couple of people said they were pleased with the new owners, including Gloria Maynard, who moved to Portland from New York in August.
She said she chose Bayside Village because it was the most reasonably priced place she could find. She said she is now a housekeeping supervisor and would be able to afford the higher rent, so she signed up for one of the renovated one-bedroom units.
“They already told me how much the rent is going be,” Maynard said. “I wish it was less, but I just want to live by myself. I don’t like the roommate situation. I think a lot of people won’t be able to afford it, that’s the problem, but I like the location, it’s close to my son – I mean everything’s around here – It’s the perfect location for me.”
She added that the property is being kept much cleaner since the new owners took over. “I like the change,” Maynard said. “Some people wouldn’t agree with me, but I’m happy living here.”
Developer offers help
At the Aug. 13 Planning Board meeting where his application was approved, Watson said Port Property was in the process of hiring a housing coordinator to help existing tenants find new housing, and that this coordinator would have $100,000 in development money to help place people.
“I think this will be a very easy transition for the people who are there,” Watson told the board. “We’re sensitive to that and we wanted you to know that.”
James, the Port Property spokeswoman, said the housing coordinator has been hired and has been working one-on-one with residents since the day the property was acquired. In addition, she said, Port Property will be piloting a housing readiness program in 2020, designed to remove some of the limiting barriers of the traditional rental process through education.
Those who successfully complete the program will receive financial assistance, and ongoing mentorship, and income and/or credit requirements could be waived.
Some residents are finding new apartments at other Port Property Management properties, with rents comparable to Bayside Village, she said – places like The Lafayette, at 638 Congress St., where some two-bedroom apartments can be rented for $1,225 month.
Watson told the Planning Board his company’s intention to do renovations in phases over 2 ½ years would prevent displacement of tenants, because they would probably be leaving anyway. He said historically, over the past five years, there was an average 50 percent turnover rate.
“That means if there are 350 people there, half of them will leave by this time next year and the other half will leave the following year,” he said.
Sykes later called this “fancy developer math, this idea that it’s going to be like this self-cleaning oven.” Floyd said many of the residents were there for more than two years and had planned to stay longer.
James said Watson meant the turnover rate demonstrates that, as designed now, the four-bedroom quads are not conducive to quality, long-term housing, but that Port Property expects and hopes that some tenants will choose to stay in the renovated apartments.
Watson also told the Planning Board that all of the rental units will qualify as workforce affordable housing, based on the city’s rent limits at the 100 percent area median income level. James said Port Property has not determined final rents, but expects them to be $1,300-$1,700 a month.
Sykes said the way the city defines affordable housing is “completely out of reach” for most people who are low-income or who have service-industry jobs.
“It’s bonkers,” she said. “You talk to some business owners, and they say they can’t get anyone to work here because no one can afford to live in the city. The city is working at cross purposes.”
The Planning Board, through its inclusionary zoning review, required Port Property to enter an affordable housing agreement before a construction permit would be granted. That agreement, filed Nov. 18, stipulates that 19 of the one-bedroom units and four two-bedroom units must be maintained as workforce units, kept at or below the rent limits for 30 percent of the area median income: currently $473 for a one-person household, to $676 for a four-person household.
Watson also said in the Planning Board meeting that Bayside Village would likely be returned to its original purpose of student housing, because he was negotiating with USM to lease half of the units for upper-classmen, graduate students, law students and faculty. He said 10 quads that will not be subdivided would be reserved for students.
“Our goal is to have a mixed community of USM folks and workforce housing folks adding to the vibrancy of Bayside,” he said.
However, Floyd said that now Port Property is signing up 40 current Bayside Village residents who qualify to be placed in those rooms with the new rental rates. Asked where negotiations stand currently, USM President Glenn Cummings did not respond by press time; James said “there will be quads as well as one- and two-bedrooms, something the USM administration has expressed interest in.”
Floyd, who plans to attend Southern Maine Community College in the fall, said she became involved after Sykes slipped a notice under her door at Bayside Village, informing tenants of the impending sale and advertising a tenants meeting for Sept. 11. Eighty to 100 people attended the meeting, the first of its kind to Floyd’s knowledge.
One of their concerns was an addendum to their leases that stipulates that if the building changes owners, the owner has the right to terminate the lease with 30-day notice.
Floyd tried filing a handwritten appeal of the Planning Board’s decision late on the deadline, Sept. 13, but no one at City Hall would receive it. She was told it had to be filed at the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, but didn’t have time to get there before closing. She organized a protest at City Hall for the following Monday, but the activists were not able to stop the property from changing hands.
Port Property staff said the leases would be honored until they expire in July 2020. Floyd believes this was a victory for the protestors, who brought attention to the issue. Further, Port Property is allowing tenants to break their leases without penalty, and has said it will return security deposits.
James verified this. “No leases are being revoked and replaced with month-to-month leases,” she said.
The City Council Housing Committee reviewed the Planning Board decision Sept. 11. Councilor Jill Duson, who chairs the committee, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
But according to minutes of the meeting, Planning Director Christine Grimando told the committee the Planning Board has no jurisdiction over the sale of the property, but that the change of use from a lodging house to residences prompted site plan, subdivision and inclusionary zoning review.
While Watson also objected to many of the changes sought by the protesters, Grimando said that none of those issues were pertinent to the Planning Board’s limited review. But the minutes indicate Duson “had expectations that staff would have looked into this further.“
Grimando also noted that neither a Credit Enhancement Agreement that had been in effect since 2006 and expired in 2018, the Bayside tax-increment financing agreement, nor the original property sale agreement included any affordability restrictions.
Floyd said that once the sale to Port Property went through Sept. 24, the company immediately moved into the management office and fired the previous management staff. They hired new security guards, but reduced the hours they work.
“They are hardly here at all,” she said, “Only a few hours a week, in the middle of the night.”
James said the security company performs random checks, and patrols the building six times per night, and that Port Property has 24/7 emergency maintenance staff supporting Bayside Village, including one person who lives on site.
Peter McDonald, another member of the PHC who lives on the first floor, said that the heat has been turned off in the building hallways.
“I mean, they just do not care about us at all,” he said, “And whenever you try to talk to them, they do kind of radiate that. They tried to tell me that the middle of December was actually a great time to be moving because you could get good deals.”
James acknowledged there was a heating issue, but said the company is working to fix it and expects it to be resolved in the next month. “Certainly, the heat was not lowered intentionally to discourage people from spending time in the common areas,” she said.
Floyd acknowledged it might not be possible to stop the redevelopment process, but hopes to at least have more help.
“We need actual help, not just our deposit back, not just one month’s rent free. We need to be in Port Property apartments, at the same rent as Bayside,” she said. “If we can’t do that we’re saying that we need help moving to other places, and we need first, last and security.”
Edited Dec. 17, 2019, to clarify that Democratic Socialists of America did not found the People’s Housing Coalition.
A history of worker housing loss
Port Property Management owner Tom Watson submitted a letter to the City Council Housing Committee Sept. 11, in response to claims that the conversion of Bayside Village is gentrifying the neighborhood. He said the majority of units in the building are in need of repair, and in some cases extermination.
“What we’re doing here is raising the quality of the housing experience,” he wrote. “Anyone who has gone from a bug-infested, or moldy, uncared for apartment in disrepair to a newly finished clean apartment can attest to this. We have seen it time and time again, the joy it can bring to people and the self-respect it can engender.”
Watson’s language is reminiscent of the slum clearance and urban renewal rhetoric of half a century ago.
In “A Saga of Renewal in a Maine City: Exploring the Fate of Portland’s Bayside District,” published in the Journal of Planning History in November 2006, John Bauman wrote that from the 1880s through the 1950s Bayside was a working-class neighborhood where “one-third of the workforce toiled as ordinary laborers, as machine operators, assemblers, truck drivers, cleaners, helpers, and garbage and trash collectors,” and its mix of multi-family, boarding houses and lodging houses made the neighborhood affordable for these workers.
But there was a crusade among city officials to get rid of these dwellings.
According to Bauman, Alan Twitchell of the American Public Health Association, hired by the Portland Planning Board to survey Bayside in 1944, wrote in his report “Does Bayside Need Rebuilding?” that the district was “clearly of a type in which it is unreasonable to expect self-respecting families willingly to live and rear families.”
But a consultant from the National Association of Home Builders said he “didn’t see any substandard housing,” after a tour of the neighborhood in 1949.
Bauman wrote that during the 1960s, Portland’s Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Authority (SCRAP) demolished 534 units in Bayside. Between 1961 and 1972, he wrote, more than 1,100 highly affordable units in triple-deckers, apartments, boarding houses, and other multi-family structures were demolished through urban renewal, expressway construction and code enforcement.
“By removing the city’s main stock of inexpensive rental housing, including many single-room occupancy dwellings, the Bayside renewal action helped bequeath a crisis of affordability that still haunts the city in the twenty-first century,” he wrote.
— Jordan Bailey