PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city officials took a walking tour of Bayside neighborhood projects benefiting from two federal grant programs facing increased scrutiny in Washington, D.C.
The roughly 2-mile walk was the capstone in the city’s ceremonial Community Development Week, which celebrated, in part, Portland’s use of Community Development Block Grants. The series of events included ribbon-cutting ceremonies at a playroom for homeless children at The Salvation Army and for renovated basketball courts in East Bayside.
On Monday night, the City Council voted on its list of priority projects for shares of the city’s $1.8 million CDBG allocation in fiscal year 2013.
But federal funding for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department’s CDBG and sister HOME program for affordable housing projects is dwindling, city officials say, and projects like those seen on Friday’s walk might be fewer and farther between in future years.
Portland City Hall announced Friday that during the past two years, federal CDBG funding has been cut by 25 percent, while spending on the HOME program has been reduced by 45 percent, trickling down to a loss of more than $1.1 million in combined allocations in Portland during that time.
Among the stops on the walking tour Friday was Pearl Place Phase II, which is under construction and will add 54 affordable housing units to Portland’s downtown when complete.
Portland-based Avesta Housing, which is the developer, can point to the $11.4 million Pearl Place Phase I — a 60-unit project which was completed in 2008 with the help of $427,000 in HOME money — to prove it’s making good on its plans for federal grant allocations. Bayside East Senior Housing, a 20-unit elderly housing development, was another walking tour site Friday and it was built, in part, using $250,000 in HOME funds.
But nationwide, the HOME program has come under a dark cloud after an investigation by The Washington Post last year revealed that nearly 700 projects to which $400 million in HOME funding has been awarded have not been carried through to completion.
The apparent lack of federal policing of projects receiving funding has caused members of Congress and HUD officials to compensate with heightened vigilance over HUD grant programs, said Amy Grommes Pulaski, Portland’s housing and community development program manager.
According to statistics provided by the city, CDBG- and HOME-funded programs provided health care to more than 700 homeless adults, served 84,000 soup kitchen lunches and constructed nearly 90 units of affordable housing in Portland last year. But, Pulaski suggested, those figures don’t fit neatly into any federal database for lawmakers trying to justify program spending.
“I wouldn’t say there aren’t people who would like to see [the CDBG program eliminated entirely],” said Pulaski, who led the Friday walking tour. “But it’s got a lot of support from senators, congressmen and especially mayors. I don’t think it will be extinguished, but it’s going through a period where people want to really evaluate project outcomes. The trouble is, with such a wide range of projects qualifying, it’s not just a widget program. We can’t say, ‘X number of housing units have been created [using the grant money].’ We fund everything from soup kitchens to playgrounds.”
Given the increased nationwide scrutiny as well as stronger competition triggered by the federal spending cuts, city officials are motivated to illustrate the positive effect the HUD programs are making locally.
“This tour gives the public an opportunity to see first-hand how vital and important these funds have been for Portland neighborhoods,” Mayor Michael Brennan said in a statement issued before the Friday morning walk. “From the construction of affordable housing to expanding access to open space and improving the walkability of the area, these funds have helped improve the health, safety and overall quality of life in the city.”
The Friday walking tour included visits to Peppermint Park on Cumberland Avenue — where $103,000 in CDBG funding replaced vandalized playground equipment, landscaping and the removal of a barrier wall — as well as the Elm Street Connection, Bayside Trail and North Boyd Street Trail Extension, where a combined $284,000 in CDBG money is being spent to connect pedestrian pathways through the city.