August 18, 2019
Portland Latest News | Chellie Pingree | Bangor Metro | Paupers' Grave | Today's Paper

Portland business leaders skeptical of policy requiring housing for homeless

Seth Koenig | BDN
Seth Koenig | BDN
Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing, points to apartment buildings along the skyline of Portland from the sidewalk alongside his organization's Oak Street Lofts project in this 2012 file photo.

Members of Portland’s business and development communities said Wednesday they worry a proposed policy requiring some developers to offer up units to local shelter users could backfire, either by deterring development or by unintentionally setting homeless people up for failure.

The policy, if ultimately adopted, would require developers who take advantage of some tax incentives and grants administered through the city to set aside 10 percent of the units in new projects for shelter users. The city would provide case management services, including help identifying programs and resources available to help them pay monthly rent, according to the proposal.

[MORE: Read more about the proposal, and the document that lays it out, here]

But one developer questioned whether the city would be able to help the at-risk tenants stay in permanent homes.

Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta Housing, told the Bangor Daily News his organization wants “to make sure the city doesn’t underestimate what is really needed for the tenants to be successful.”

The Maine State Housing Authority gives funding priority to projects that reserve 20 percent of the units to house the homeless, and that 144 previously homeless households have moved into Avesta units over the past two and a half years, according to Totman.

“What we’ve realized is that the challenges facing some homeless folks are really quite significant. Some tenants have done fine, and some have not,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, what tends to happen is we take a chance on some tenants, they fail, and end up homeless again. And it’s costing us a lot of money in damages and unpaid rent. We want to serve those who are most needy and we want to have a positive impact on their lives. The last thing we want to see is failure.”

Totman said facilities like Logan Place and Florence House — local housing projects with comprehensive on-site services for formerly homeless individuals — have proven to be successful, but he said those programs “take a level of support that I’m not sure the city or the state is really prepared to support financially.”

Chris Hall, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he still has questions about what impact the proposed policy would have.

“Regulatory responses to the housing crisis need to be careful not to constrain development,” he said. “I don’t know whether this will do that or not. I want to find out and talk to the development community.”

Mary Davis, director of the city’s Housing and Community Development division, which proposed the policy, said she hopes the City Council’s Housing Committee votes on the proposal at its April 27 meeting. If the committee approves of the measure, it would go to the larger City Council for final passage.

The policy aims to help city case managers working to place regular shelter users in permanent housing in a market where even well-heeled tenants are having difficulty finding space. Residential vacancy rates are reportedly between zero and two percent, and demand has pushed rents up more than $500 per month beyond what average city tenants can afford to pay.

The average per-night shelter population in Portland is 433. In January, the most recent month for which city data is posted, city case managers and other local service providers were able to find permanent housing for 71 people.

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