The Equinox, a new affordable housing building being constructed on Winter Street will help the city make a dent in the demand for affordable housing for families. Contributed / Aceto Landscape Architecture + Urban Design
A project approved last week by the Portland Planning Board will add a type of affordable housing that is vastly needed in the city: family housing.
“The type of housing being provided here is necessary,” Planning Board Chair Brandon Mazer said. “We are not seeing a ton of family housing in general coming in. We are seeing a lot of studios and one-bedrooms, so this is really meeting some of our need.”
The July 13 Planning Board approval comes as a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows how dire the city’s need is for affordable housing.
The Community House of Maine and Portland Housing Development Corporation project, part of a larger redevelopment project at the Mercy Hospital site, consists of 95 units of senior and family housing in two new buildings to be constructed on Winter Street. Winter Landing at 91 Winter St. will have 52 one-bedroom apartments for senior citizens and Equinox at 73 Winter St. will include six studios, 15 one-bedrooms, 13 two-bedrooms and nine three-bedroom units.
More than half the Winter Landing apartments will be reserved for households making no more than 50% of the area media income, which is $35,315 for an individual; 20 will be reserved for households at or below 60% AMI; and 15 will be set aside for people who had been staying at a homeless shelter more than 180 days.
Twenty-six of the Equinox units will be for tenants earning no more than 50% of the area median income, which is $35,315 for an individual; 17 will be be for those making no more than 60% of the AMI, or $42,378, and 10 will be set aside for women and families working on recovery through Mercy Hospital’s McAuley Residence program.
“This is going to be an asset to the West End and it’s good for our city,” Planning Board member Austin Smith said.
Housing in Portland, like many other areas in the country, is increasingly unaffordable, especially for low-income families. The 2021 Out of Reach report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition said that a worker in Maine making the state’s minimum wage of $12.15 an hour must work 55 hours a week to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment and 70 hours a week to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment. In Portland, to afford the fair market rate for two-bedroom residence, a $30.62 hourly wage, or $63,680 annually, is needed, close to double the median wage for renters in the city.
The state Legislature recently passed a bill to establish a commission to look at housing shortages for low-income and middle-income households and review measures to increase housing opportunities for them. A report is expected in early November.
According to Portland’s 2020 Housing Report, there is a five-year waitlist for Section 8 housing and more than 1,300 households are on the waitlist for public housing, despite a push in recent years for more affordable housing in the city. In 2020, 176, or close to 65% of the housing units approved by the Planning Board, were affordable housing units.
Since 2000, the city has used more than $17 million in federal and local funding and provided $37 million in tax breaks to developers to support the creation of 1,600 affordable housing units. On Monday, the city council approved using $400,000 in Home Investment Partnership Program funding to support the Equinox project and $200,000 to support the Winter Landing project.
NewHeight Red Fern is working through plans to turn Northern Light Mercy Hospital’s building on State Street in Portland into more than 160 residential units. Brianna Soukup /Portland Press Herald
The other half of Mercy Hospital redesign plan, in which NewHeight Group is teaming up with Red Fern to renovate the old hospital into a mixed-use building, will add another 170 housing units to Portland.
The hospital building, once renovated, will include 162 residential units and eight next door at the Morrison House. Of the units, 153 will be be market rate and 17 will be affordable housing. There will be 37 studios, 131 one-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments.
The hospital building will also house a medical clinic, self storage facility, cafe, hardware store, hair salon and co-working office space.
Erin Cooperrider, principal of the NewHeight Group, said the project is “just a little bit behind” the Winter Street affordable housing project.
“The site plan and subdivision application has received two workshops and will be back, in August we hope, for a public hearing,” Cooperrider said.
Earlier this year, the Portland Historic Preservation Board granted a certificate of appropriateness for the exterior improvements to the building, which sits in the West End Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The hospital building was sold in February 2020 to NewHeight Red Fern LLC for $11.5 million, according to assessing records. Mercy, which opened the State Street hospital in 1943, is phasing out its use of the building and is shifting operations to its Fore River campus, which is expected to be completed by next year.