SCARBOROUGH – The question at Monday’s South Portland City Council meeting wasn’t whether the city supports senior citizens, it was whether it maybe supports them a little too much.

The council voted unanimously to approve the first reading of a zoning change needed to clear the way for a new 44-unit elderly housing complex to be built by the nonprofit South Portland Housing Authority. However, some councilors intimated South Portland is doing more than its fair share for seniors, casting unanimity in doubt when the matter comes up for final passage July 6.

The housing authority hopes to turn a 186,589-square-foot vacant lot off Huntress Avenue into a companion facility to its Ridgeland Estates property, which sits adjacent to the lot. However, to accommodate that change the lot needs to be reclassified from Zone A (suitable for single-family homes) to G-2, a special zone where multi-unit “congregate care” buildings especially for seniors and the handicapped are allowed.

The Planning Board recommended the change by a 7-0 vote at its May 23 meeting.

“I have no problem with affordable housing,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “Nobody can argue with that, but I have some serous concerns.”

Those concerns broke down on the practical and the theoretical.

Blake started off by noting that in the 1940s, South Portland had four zones. Today, he said, it has more than 30.

“It’s got to the point of, why have zones at all?” he asked, rhetorically. “Every time a change is needed, we create a new zone to accommodate those needs. All of this goes towards increasing [building] density in the city of South Portland, and we already are one of he most dense communities in the state of Maine.”

Zone A limits housing units to four per acre. The change to a G-2 zone increases that limit to 14 per acre.

Blake then pointed out that the city’s comprehensive plan, drafted in 1992 and updated in 2005, calls on maintaining 10 percent of the local building stock as “affordable housing.”

“I think we may be beyond 10 percent,” said Blake, who wondered if other area communities are doing as much as South Portland. “The Housing Authority is at 8 percent, but remember, they are only one entity that provides affordable housing.”

The South Portland Housing Authority has 641 units and pays annual property taxes of $168,000.

“That is the equivalent of $263 per unit per year,” said Blake. “That is a tremendous deal.”

Because the housing authority has a backlog of more than 760 applications, there are many seniors in South Portland who are essentially subsidizing those low rates.

“I think the way we are going, we are continuing to put more of a burden on our taxpayers,” said Blake. “People ask me, ‘Why are property taxes in South Portland so high?’ It’s because we have hundreds of properties – not dozens, but hundreds – which pay no property taxes at all. And we have hundreds, if not thousands, which pay reduced taxes.”

Blake called on a council workshop to address what he perceives as an inequity in city tax rates due to the high number of affordable units.

Whether or not that happens, a parade of half a dozen housing authority residents addressed the council to testify to the need for the services its provides.

“It was a godsend for me,” said Nancy Poland, a 10-year housing authority resident. “My original home was in desperate need of repairs, which I couldn’t afford. It got to the point where the land had more tax value than the house itself. I was going downhill fast.”

After the seniors celebrated the need, condition and maintenance provided by SPHA – “It’s like my own little condo,” said one man – Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis thanked the group, whom she described at “the fabric of our community” for their testimony.

“I’m about ready to pack up myself and move in,” she joked.

The South Portland City Council on Monday gave preliminary
approval to a zone change that would allow for a new 44-unit
elderly housing complex, above, to be built off Huntress Avenue.
(Courtesy image)


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