December 20, 2013

Maine Voices: To expand middle-class housing, Portland's zoning rules must change

For example, the city has no business in telling developers how much parking they need.

By Christian MilNeil

For decades, the city’s planning policies have focused on preserving Portland’s historic buildings to lure businesses and residents back from the suburbs, and it’s been a great success.

about the author

Christian MilNeil of Portland is a member of the board of directors of the Portland Housing Authority and an online content producer for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

But we don’t love Portland merely for its old buildings; we also love it for its economic and ethnic diversity, for the economic opportunities the city offers and for the creative industries and small businesses that grow here.

As the city grows in popularity, there’s a growing concern that affluent baby boomers will transform Portland into a dull and unaffordable enclave for the wealthy. On Munjoy Hill and along India Street, dozens of new condominiums are being built at prices that require six-figure incomes.

We all want Portland to be an attractive place to live, and the fact that wealthier families want to move here means that we’re succeeding in that goal.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also fight to preserve our roots as an egalitarian city. As the city attracts more residents, it also needs to expand its housing opportunities with an adequate supply of new homes for everyone.

The recent run-up in rents and surge in homelessness are proof that we’re falling short. In spite of a growing population and some high-profile luxury housing developments, the past decade has seen virtually no new housing built for middle-class Portlanders who teach in our schools, run our restaurants and keep the working waterfront working.

There’s a simple reason why developers aren’t building new homes for the majority of working Portlanders: Our 1960s-era zoning laws make it financially impossible for them to do so.

Suppose you have a typical empty lot on the Portland peninsula.

Height limits keep you to building four stories, at most, and parking rules force you to dedicate your entire ground floor to car storage. With construction costs in the neighborhood of $150 per square foot, plus the costs of the land, design and permitting, building three two-bedroom apartments atop a ground-floor parking garage adds up to a $1 million building – more than $330,000 per apartment.

That price is already well above what a median-income family can afford, and it doesn’t include the substantial costs of taxes, utilities and mortgage interest.

In the current zoning regime, this impossible math leaves builders with two choices: Develop expensive apartments for rich people, or compete for increasingly scarce funding to build subsidized housing for the poor. Middle-class housing is effectively illegal in Portland.

To legalize affordable housing, neighborhood activists and city planners need to make bold changes to our zoning code.

To begin with, Portland will need to follow the lead of other cities and admit that it has no business in telling developers how much parking they need. More and more urban middle-class households are going car-free, to the benefit of our local economy and our environment. Supply and demand – not the government – should govern how much parking gets built.

The city also needs to raise building height limits and reduce building setback requirements in order to fit more units of housing on the city’s limited real estate. Fitting more housing into the city’s neighborhoods will give more working families a stake in the city’s growing prosperity.

To lots of us, taller buildings and fewer parking lots doesn’t sound bad – it’s just part of living in a vibrant city.

Still, taking these measures to make room for more housing won’t be easy politically.

Go to any planning meeting and you’ll see that the people complaining about taller buildings and parking issues are almost always well-off. Unlike the working poor, they have the leisure time to attend long planning meetings and influence zoning policy. Our “public process” is inherently biased against progress and the people who need housing the most.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us who possess the privilege of being able to participate in these civic discussions (this means you, opinion page readers) to maintain some perspective about how our bourgeois desires in urban design weigh against the greater needs of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Shadows from taller buildings, or finding free storage for your four-wheeled private property – those are First World problems. Dozens of your neighbors living in the shelters for want of stable housing: That’s a real-world problem, and we need to work harder to solve it. 

— Special to the Press Herald

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)