PORTLAND, Maine — A flurry of construction in the Portland area will provide new housing options for the area’s low-income residents.
But these aren’t the cookie cutter apartments of yore. Thin wires lining the hallways — meant for artwork — is one of the little tweaks in the design of Oak Street Lofts, a 37-unit building of efficiency apartments nestled in Portland’s arts district. The nearly $6.4 million project is nearing completion, and when it opens later this month it will be the first multifamily affordable housing building in the state to earn LEED Platinum certification for its especially low carbon footprint.
Oak Street Lofts is just one of eight Avesta Housing projects either in the queue or in various stages of construction.
The workload is large even for Avesta, the largest nonprofit housing agency in Northern New England, and comes at a time when there is still a strong need for affordable housing — and construction work — in southern Maine due to a still sluggish economy.
The ambitious wave of projects also comes as the group tries to heal bruises to its image caused by ties to controversially deficient low-income housing in the Norway area, as well as a three-year-old audit that questioned Avesta’s compliance with federal cost control standards.
“In the last 12 years, since I’ve been with Avesta, we’ve usually on average had two or three projects under construction at any given time,” organization president Dana Totman told the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “This scenario, where we have six currently under construction, is double or triple that normal bulge of activity.”
Part of that buildup of projects, Totman said, can be attributed to the fact that Avesta had “a bit of a lull” in new buildings over the previous year. Another contributing factor is an increase in funding available for such projects, through a $50 million 2009 state bond to support affordable housing and the federal stimulus package that same year. But a third factor, he said, is that Avesta began “consciously aggressively going after development because the need is there.”
“The need couldn’t be greater and it ranges from seniors wanting to move out of a dilapidated farmhouse, to an individual staying in the Oxford Street [homeless] shelter, to a young couple just starting out,” Totman said. “The demand for rental housing is greater than it’s been in a long time.”
With their ambitious slate of projects, Avesta officials are targeting as many of those demographics as they can. All the way to putting up wires along the hallways in Oak Street Lofts for artists.
“Those will be marketed to artists, although you don’t have to be an artist to live there,” said Greg Payne, an Avesta development officer. “Cascade Brook in Saco will provide housing for the elderly, and [the second phase of] Pearl Place here in Portland is for families, so there is a wide range of people being served.”
Combined, the organization’s eight projects will add 243 affordable units to the greater Portland area, providing housing to an estimated 400 people.
But with thousands on the group’s waiting lists, Totman said he hopes to keep his foot on the pedal in coming years as well. Totman said 3,500 people approached Avesta during the first six months of 2011, and the organization was able to place less than 150 of them based on openings at the time.
Statewide, said Payne, for every 100 extremely low-income individuals, 49 appropriately affordable units are available. That means some of those individuals join the ranks of the homeless, contributing to increasing numbers living on the streets of Portland. According to information provided by the city Thursday, as many as 350 people on any given night check in at one of Portland’s six overnight shelters.
Even without adding housing units directly for use by the homeless, as is done by the city of Portland and the nearby organization Preble Street, among others, Payne said the phalanx of Avesta projects will help open up more spaces for folks in the lowest of income brackets.
“Units like those in Oak Street Lofts come onto the market and people who are making 50 percent of the median income can afford to move in,” Payne said, freeing up their previous apartments for those defined as “extremely low income,” making less than 30 percent of the area median income.
The march of projects also injects $55 million in construction activity to the area — including $30 million in contractor wages and between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs — at a time when employment is just as needed as housing.
“There’s a handful of school projects, and then there’s this [slate of Avesta projects],” Totman said. “There are not a lot of office buildings going up, there aren’t a lot of subdivisions, there aren’t a lot of retail projects. Contractors are knocking on our door.”
The big development push also comes on the heels of what has been a daunting stretch politically for an organization that was largely uncontroversial previously.
Avesta Housing was the subject of an audit by the Office of the Inspector General in 2008. The investigation was conducted to determine whether Avesta complied with procurement policies and procedures spelled out by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and whether the firm’s method of cost allocation was adequate and supported. The audit found instances where Avesta did not comply with federal regulations and offered suggestions for changes. Totman said his staff did not agree with portions of the report and subsequently provided additional documentation that challenged assertions in the audit. The matter has now been closed.
More recently, Avesta was tied to a group of low-income apartments in the Norway area found to be left in disrepair. Avesta was signed by the Maine State Housing Authority to inspect the units, and after the apartments were discovered to be unsafe, the Portland organization fired the longtime inspector who had been charged with overseeing the properties.
Avesta Housing has long worked closely with the authority — often called in short MaineHousing — and remains in danger of becoming collateral damage in what has become an increasingly intense and high profile political feud between Republican State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin and Democrat MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick. Poliquin has criticized the high per-unit cost of some MaineHousing projects.
The Norway controversy, said a MaineHousing official, was traced to a “rogue inspector” while the Inspector General criticisms were ultimately addressed.
Still, the stories cast negative spotlights on Avesta. The wave of new projects helps organization officials weather those ordeals and remain focused on their mission of creating and advocating for affordable housing, Totman, who served as deputy director of MaineHousing before joining Avesta 12 years ago, said.
“It’s staggering what the need is, but that’s what brings us to work each day,” he said.
List of projects
• Oak Street Lofts, Portland
Type: Efficiency apartments
Contractors: CWS Architects, Wright-Ryan Construction
Cost: $6.39 million
Funding: Federal low-income housing tax credits, NeighborWorks America, city of Portland, MaineHousing
Finished: This month
• Cascade Brook, Saco
Type: Senior apartments
Contractors: CWS Architects, Landry/French Construction Co.
Cost: $5.47 million
Funding: Federal low-income housing tax credits, stimulus funds, Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, MaineHousing
Finished: May 2012
• Pearl Place II, Portland
Type: Family apartments
Contractors: PDT Architects, Wright-Ryan Construction
Cost: $12.91 million
Funding: Federal low-income housing tax credits, city of Portland, MaineHousing, Boston Capital
Finished: December 2012
• Adams School, Portland
Type: Two- and three-bedroom townhouses
Contractors: PDT Architects, builder to be selected through bidding
Cost: $5.9 million
Funding: Neighborhood Stabilization Program, city of Portland
• Emery School, Biddeford
Type: Affordable apartments
Contractors: Archetype Architects, AlliedCook Construction
Cost: $6.8 million
Funding: Federal and state Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, TD Bank
Finished: July 2012
• Stonecrest II, Standish
Type: Senior apartments
Contractors: Gawron Turgeon Architects, Great Falls Construction
Cost: $4.62 million
Funding: Federal low-income housing tax credits, Rural Development, MaineHousing
• Park Street School, Kennebunk
Type: Senior apartments
Contractors: CWS Architects, Wright-Ryan Construction, Sutherland Conservation & Consulting
Cost: $8.16 million
Funding: Federal and state Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, federal low-income housing tax credits, USDA Rural Development, MaineHousing
Finished: August 2012
• Munjoy Commons, Portland
Type: Family apartments
Contractors: CWS Architects, AlliedCook Construction
Cost: $9.31 million
Funding: MaineHousing, stimulus funds, low-income housing tax credits, Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, Gorham Savings Bank
Finished: Late 2011
An earlier version of this story contained an error. The housing project Munjoy Commons in Portland contains 39 units in two buildings, not 22.