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Apartment squeeze in Portland: Single renters, immigrants, poor hardest hit

Posted May 17, 2013, at 3:46 p.m.
Last modified May 18, 2013, at 11:43 a.m.

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Jessica Fleming, 25, said she can't count the number of apartments she's applied for without a call back. Fleming has been living at the Portland Family Shelter for nearly two months with her 10-month-old daughter Kaiden. Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Jessica Fleming, 25, said she can't count the number of apartments she's applied for without a call back. Fleming has been living at the Portland Family Shelter for nearly two months with her 10-month-old daughter Kaiden. Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Jennifer Hudson, 24, is nearly six months pregnant and finally managed to rent a one-bedroom apartment to share with her boyfriend. She said they have been stranded in motel rooms and at the Oxford Street Shelter for a year while searching for a permanent apartment. Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Jennifer Hudson, 24, is nearly six months pregnant and finally managed to rent a one-bedroom apartment to share with her boyfriend. She said they have been stranded in motel rooms and at the Oxford Street Shelter for a year while searching for a permanent apartment. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Four years ago, when Jessica Fleming searched for an apartment in Portland, the process went by “instantly.”

“All you had to do was call a landlord and that same day, you were looking at a place,” said Fleming, 25. “Now, I can’t even count the number of apartments I’ve called about and haven’t even been called back.”

As the face of Portland shifts, the city is experiencing a severe apartment crunch. Household sizes in the city have shrunk, driven down by single asylum seekers moving in from overseas, longer life expectancies of retirees and lifestyle changes among young businesspeople.

Fleming’s experience is now common in Maine’s largest city, where rental vacancy rates in some areas of the city are zero, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. In certain areas of the city where rentals are abundant, such as the West End, one out of every 14 apartments is up for lease.

Faced with a glut of renters, landlords are getting pickier, and rental prices are starting to rise.

“I just rented a studio apartment a few weeks ago,” said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “I had six applicants in the first hour, and they were all well-qualified tenants who I would have been happy to have.”

Portland’s population, estimated at 66,000, hasn’t changed much since the 2010 census, and the rental boom hasn’t come at the expense of home sales, which began to rebound along with the economy.

“We don’t have tremendous population growth,” Vitalius said. “It seems odd that there are these waves, but the population doesn’t change.”

One difference is the shrinking size of households throughout the city, said Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing, the region’s top nonprofit housing developer.

The current average-size city household is 1 and a half people, said Totman. That’s down from the 2010 census figure of 2.07, and significantly lower than the four- and five-person households popular before 1980, when 80 percent of Portland’s housing stock was built.

Fleming, who has been living at the Portland Family Shelter with her 10-month-old daughter, Kaiden, is already the head of a larger-than-average household.

“If the average household size was 2.4 — about 50 percent larger — you’d need much fewer housing units to house the same number of people,” Totman said.

Household sizes are dropping across all demographics, according to Portland city officials and federal data trackers. Retirees are living longer and are seeking second careers after their children move away; young adults wait longer to get married and have fewer children; and more of Portland’s new arrivals are from overseas.

“Now young people between the ages of 25 and 35 are being advised not to buy a house, because they could find themselves underwater quickly or will need to be prepared to move to take new jobs,” Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said.

Also, a greater percentage of new arrivals are fleeing dangerous countries under dire circumstances and are more likely to be moving alone or with one other, said Douglas Gardner, director of Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“They’re not in a place where home ownership is an option. And any additional demand when the market is so tight plays out as significant,” said Gardner. He pointed out that last year there were 363 refugees and immigrants who stayed in the city’s Chestnut Street Family Shelter, the highest number in five years.

That demand is pushing prices up, but not to historically high levels. The current average two-bedroom apartment in the city fetches $1,008 a month, a rental price higher than last year’s $985 monthly, but still lower than the $1,100-plus figures of 2010 and 2011.

Instead of jacking up the rent, landlords are increasing their standards for whom they’ll take on as tenants.

Many landlords Flemming approached have asked for rental histories going back several years and are asking for credit scores greater than 640. She said she lived in only one previous apartment and doesn’t have a credit history.

Jennifer Hudson, 24, is nearly six months pregnant and learned on Tuesday she has managed to find a one-bedroom apartment to share with her boyfriend and soon-to-come child. But for the past year, the couple stayed with friends, lived in motel rooms and slept at the city’s Oxford Street Shelter while looking for a permanent apartment. The landlords she spoke to were requiring security deposits and first and last month’s rent upfront.

“On an $800 place, you’re paying more than $2,000 upfront,” Hudson said. “That’s a lot of money to have saved up at one time.”

“When there’s more demand, you can be more choosy about who you pick,” said Vitalius of the Southern Maine Landlords Association. “You feel bad for the [prospective] tenants, but as a building owner, you can take good care of your building. You can count on reliable rent, you can find people who will take better care of the unit, and you can maintain your property more easily.”

Mindy Woerter, communications manager for Avesta, pointed out that while a two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,008 per month, affordable monthly rent for low-income residents, making less than 30 percent of the area median income, does exit. It’s only $573.

She said there is a deficit of nearly 10,000 rental units that are both affordable and available in Maine’s 1st Congressional District, in which Portland is by far the largest city.

“These deficits become less extreme and even a surplus as you go up the income brackets,” Woerter said. “It’s important to remember that a rental shortage is most acutely felt by low-income people.”

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