WESTBROOK, Maine — When Maine school districts seek to modernize or create efficiencies by replacing or vacating old buildings, it creates opportunities for developers looking to feed the state’s hunger for more housing.
“I watch local council meetings and school board deliberations closely, and when they start to talk about school consolidations, I immediately start to think about how those structures can be reused,” said Dana Totman, president of Portland-based Avesta Housing.
The latest example of the thriving school-to-home movement was on display Friday in Westbrook as Avesta hosted its ceremonial grand opening of the $9.5 million Hyacinth Place, a 19th century parochial school and convent redeveloped into an energy-efficient 37-unit affordable housing campus.
While Avesta is not the only development firm taking advantage of empty schools to help meet Maine’s housing demand, it’s arguably the most prolific.
New England’s largest nonprofit housing developer acquired and renovated the former Shailer and Emerson schools in Portland — now part of a single Munjoy Commons housing campus — and rebuilt Biddeford’s former Emery School and Kennebunk’s former Cousens and Park schools as housing projects.
All told, Avesta has renovated or created 158 housing units using former school spaces.
“Schools are great because classrooms are the right size — one classroom is about the size of an apartment — and the buildings are usually located close to the downtowns or other housing,” Totman said. “They usually have a lot of parking as well. The other thing is towns just have a lot of them.”
Kevin Bunker of Portland-based Developers Collaborative partnered with Avesta on the Hyacinth Place project, which employed more than 300 construction workers and generated nearly $1.7 million in wages during more than a year of work.
Bunker is no stranger to the school renovation trend. On Thursday night, the Augusta City Council agreed to give Bunker and his partners, the Augusta Housing Authority, a 90-year lease for the former Hodgkins Middle School.
“[Former schools] tend to be in the right place,” Bunker said of the structures’ typically central locations.
As a sign that government officials see the value of these school-to-home projects, the Augusta council will take just $1 per year in lease payments from Bunker.
And over the course of the lease, that looks like an expensive deal compared with the one Bunker received from the city of Portland, where councilors were eager enough to add housing and unload the maintenance burden of the historic Nathan Clifford School that they sold the property to him outright for $1 total.
Unlike the other projects mentioned, however, the Nathan Clifford units will be rented at market rates.
The former Roosevelt Elementary School in South Portland is headed for a similar makeover after city officials reportedly agreed to sell the building to housing developers late last year.
In Falmouth, the former Plummer-Motz and Lunt schools were sold by the town to developer John Wasileski’s OceanView retirement community for inclusion in that campus.
The Greater Brunswick Housing Development Corp. was honored in 2013 by the group Maine Preservation for converting the century-old, castle-shaped former Lisbon Falls High School into elderly housing, and the list of such projects goes on.
If Avesta Development Officer Greg Payne has his way, that list will continue to grow in future years as well. Payne said approximately 200 people approach Avesta each month seeking help finding housing, and the firm only has capacity across its properties to help about 20 of them.
“We have huge waiting lists for all of our projects,” said Totman, who added that more than 70,000 Maine households pay greater than 50 percent of their respective incomes for housing, leaving them unable in many cases to afford food, medicine, child care or heating fuel.
“No matter how many of these projects we build with the resources we have, we’ll never touch the demand,” Bunker said.