BELFAST, Maine — When Gov. Janet Mills last year released a multi-million dollar housing bond that had been blocked since 2015, housing advocates hailed the move as a way to help construct more affordable housing for Maine seniors.
But the news that 49 of the 212 units will be built in two projects located on the same residential road in Belfast came as a surprise to some city officials.
“I think it’s tremendous,” Belfast City Councilor Neal Harkness said Monday. “It’s amazing they gave out [just a few] of these grants for the entire state and we got two of them.”
Realty Resources Management of Rockport plans to develop 24 one- and two-bedroom units in a two-story building on a 2.46-acre lot at 80 Wight St.
Portland-based Developers Collaborative is expected to build on a 2-acre lot at 75 Wight St. The project would include 23 one-bedroom and two studio apartments in a three-story building.
Developers Collaborative may also build another three-story building to house a dozen market-rate apartments on the same property, according to documents submitted to the city last fall.
Thomas Kittredge, the city’s economic development director, said he hopes the new units will help ease the city’s affordable housing crunch. Increased demand, rising rents and sluggish housing development have combined in recent years to make housing on the midcoast hard to come by. According to 2017 figures from MaineHousing, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Belfast was nearly $1,000. The annual income needed to comfortably afford that rent is almost $39,000, but the median income for a renter household was just $25,000 — making a large affordability gap. A search on Craigslist this week showed 13 apartments available for rent in Belfast, with just six of those listed for less than $1,000.
“I think it will make a difference to Belfast,” Kittredge said. “I think it’s overall going to be a great net benefit to the Wight Street area and the city of Belfast to have the housing put there.”
Last September, MaineHousing, or the Maine State Housing Authority, issued a request for proposals for senior housing in rural areas, and by October, both Realty Resources Management and Developers Collaborative had submitted applications to the city. In November, city officials created an Affordable Housing Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district on Wight Street, in an effort to support the construction of both projects.
News that Belfast will have nearly 50 new affordable senior housing units was greeted on social media with excitement and even some relief.
“I’m broke and do without in order to have a roof over my head here,” one woman wrote on the “You Know You Love Belfast” community Facebook page. “This will make things better for many people.”
At a public hearing in November, a couple neighbors of the planned developments said they worried the project could increase traffic and alter the aesthetics of the area. They also feared they might lose trees and portions of their front yard if the city widens Wight Street.
“You’re not given proper time for people to really look at this and see if it’s what we want for our town,” Mike Patterson, a project abutter, said then about the timeline for the project, which he believed would look similar to large hotel buildings. “Three hotel units sitting on a 2-acre lot and a 2.5-acre lot, crammed in there with parking spaces — it is going to be an albatross. It is not what we want for the city.”
Harkness said this week that he understands why people could be concerned about changes in their neighborhood. But he said that the area already houses similar facilities, including Tall Pines, a retirement community, and a 33-unit development operated by Volunteers of America that provides affordable housing to seniors.
“I think that neighborhood is already well-established as mixed single-unit homes and multi-unit housing,” he said.
According to Kittredge, it’s possible that construction on the two projects could start as soon as this summer.
“They’re not going to sit on this,” he said of the developers. “They’re going to move forward expeditiously.”