Projects across the southern Maine landscape aim to keep up with explosive demand, but advocates say 'we are not creating new affordable homes fast enough.'
John Welch was homeless for nine months before finally finding an apartment with Avesta in Gorham. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
John Welch was homeless for nine months before moving into Hillside at Village Square, a 27-unit subsidized apartment building in Gorham that Avesta Housing opened in January.
It was a rough period. A breakup left the disabled former construction worker struggling to find an apartment in a tight housing market made worse by the COVID-19 real estate boom. Welch says he managed to stay sober, despite spending nights in a homeless shelter, and he’s working to stay healthy in recovery in his new home.
“I’ve made some friends here already,” he says. “I’m looking forward to summer.”
But even as Avesta, the largest nonprofit affordable-housing provider in the state, and other developers plan, build and fill new housing, demand for affordable units in Maine continues unabated.
Total applications for Avesta’s 3,100 units in Maine and New Hampshire nearly doubled in the last two years — from 4,715 in 2020 to 8,836 in 2022 — and 43% of applicants were homeless.
While Avesta has added 341 units since 2020, it was only able to house less than 4% of applicants last year, down from 8% in 2021 and 9% in 2020.
The agency currently has 5,021 households on its waitlists, up from 4,879 in December.
“We simply don’t have enough homes for the number of people who need a place to live,” said Rebecca Hatfield, Avesta’s president and CEO. “And we are not creating new affordable homes fast enough.”
The new Avesta apartment building on the Village Square campus in Gorham has 27 subsidized apartments. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Some developers and communities are trying to make a dent in the 22,500 affordable rental units needed across the state – an estimate tallied by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Previous estimates were about 20,000.
Avesta received more than 1,000 applications for the 52-unit West End II apartments that opened last month in South Portland, next door to the 64-unit West End I that opened in 2021.
The Szanton Company opened the 55-unit Milliken Heights apartment building two weeks later in Old Orchard Beach, after giving up on a 46-unit affordable-housing proposal last year in Cape Elizabeth that faced unrelenting opposition from town residents.
Nathan Szanton, company president, believes attitudes toward affordable housing have begun to change because the lack of housing is affecting people at every income level, including older homeowners who are unable to downsize and business owners who struggle to fill jobs when potential employees can’t find a place to live.
“There’s less NIMBY-ism,” he said, referring to “not in my backyard” attitudes. “There’s a recognition that it’s not just certain people who are having a problem finding housing – it’s everyone.”
Szanton’s overall demand for its properties has increased 78% in the last three years, from 2,018 applicants in 2020 to 3,598 applicants today, said Kristin Martin, the company’s development officer.
It owns 615 affordable and market-rate units between 12 properties in Portland, Biddeford, Lewiston, Auburn, Bath, Old Orchard Beach and Exeter, New Hampshire.
Cassidy LaCroix brings in a load of belongings into the Milliken Heights development in March as the 55-unit complex for those 55 and older opened. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
Milliken Heights – one-bedroom apartments for people age 55 and older – had an “interest list” of 156 people before it opened and should be fully leased by May, Martin said. Forty-four units are considered affordable, with rents set at about $1,100 per month, and 11 market-rate units are renting for $1,450 to $1,495.
Martin said demand is especially strong in communities where affordable family homes are scarce and older residents want to downsize, but they’re stuck because they can’t find apartments that would allow them to stay in town.
That’s the situation in Cumberland, where the town’s housing authority has a constant waitlist of nearly 300 people for its only development – Cumberland Meadows – a 30-unit complex for people age 55 and up. It’s also where the last 20 single-family home sales averaged over $1 million, according to Town Manager Bill Shane.
“How do you even start to talk about affordable housing in that landscape?” Shane asked.
To that end, the Cumberland Town Council established a housing task force and unanimously approved its recommendations in January, setting a goal to promote the development of 150 affordable-housing units for people of various incomes and ages. It also expanded tax increment financing districts to support public infrastructure for affordable housing, and it called for “aggressive implementation” of greater housing-density requirements mandated last year by the Legislature.
With those goals in mind, the Cumberland Planning Board recently approved Szanton’s White Rock Terrace off Route 1 in just two meetings. Construction of the 55-unit affordable-housing project for people age 55 and older will begin soon after the company receives government subsidies anticipated this year, Martin said.
Cumberland officials also are working with Falmouth developer David Chase, who wants to build about 60 small, single-family homes at a former gravel pit off Blackstrap Road, Shane said. Chase is expected to present the project to the planning board this summer.
About 60% of the houses would be priced at $400,000, which is considered affordable to Cumberland households earning up to 120% of area median household income, he said. The annual median household income in Cumberland is $122,000, while it’s $80,679 in Cumberland County, and $63,182 statewide, according to the U.S. Census.
“That’s the new price for affordable in Cumberland,” Shane said. “We’re just trying to do our part. If every town comes up with a few extra units, we can make a difference.”
Avesta received more than 1,000 applicants when it opened the West End II building in South Portland last month. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer
In South Portland, Habitat for Humanity is building eight single-family homes in the Thornton Heights neighborhood with support from the local housing authority and the city’s community development block grant program.
The South Portland Housing Authority also has finally leased two of three street-level commercial spaces at Thornton Heights Commons, a 42-unit, mixed-income apartment building on Main Street/Route 1 that opened in December 2021.
“The apartments were completely filled in two weeks,” said Brooks More, development director. But the 7,000-square-foot storefront has been noticeably vacant ever since.
The commercial tenants set to move in this summer are El Amira, a second location for Dina’s Cuisine, a Middle Eastern restaurant and bakery in Portland; and Caribbean Affairs, an ethnic convenience market. The remaining space is about 4,000 square feet and has its own loading dock.
“We developed (Thornton Heights Commons) to build on the city’s vision for a more walkable neighborhood with more services available to residents,” More said. “Hopefully, with two commercial spots leased, interest will pick up for the other available space.”
The authority also is working to develop smaller projects to make the most of available land in the city, More said. The buildings would have five to 10 units, including three-bedroom apartments for families.
And the authority is building Jocelyn Place, a 60-unit affordable apartment building for older residents in the Oak Hill neighborhood of Scarborough. That project is set to open in September.
It’s targeting the same demographic as Hillside at Village Square in Gorham, where John Welch finally found a home.
For more than a decade, housing advocates have warned that Maine’s rapidly aging population needs at least 8,000 affordable and accessible apartments for people age 55 and older.
Developers are responding, providing more living options for older Mainers who are “overhoused” and freeing up larger homes for families. They’re also answering the essential need for safe and affordable apartments for people like Welch.
At age 59, Welch said, Hillside at Village Square will be his last home.
“I’m not going to move again,” he said.