The Portland City Council’s Housing Committee will tap a national housing expert on Wednesday as it begins considering ways to encourage more housing construction and ease the upward pressure on rents that is driving some middle-income families out of Maine’s largest city.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, who has made addressing the city’s housing shortage a top priority, said the committee hopes to have recommendations ready by the end of the year. He has previously described Portland as going through a housing “crisis,” and has set a goal of permitting 2,000 new housing units over the next five years.

“I hear about it all the time,” said Strimling, who frequently cites a $500 gap between what people make and what they can afford to pay in rent. “We certainly want to get an assessment of the situation, which is what this first meeting is going to focus on.”

City Councilor Jill Duson, who leads the committee, said she will actively seek input from people whose voices aren’t typically heard at City Hall, including millennials, public housing residents and empty-nesters, to ensure that the committee is considering all aspects of the market.

The committee, which plans to meet twice a month, will hold a public hearing at its second meeting, on Feb. 10, to solicit opinions and insight at the front end of the process, Duson said.

“I am going to try to reach out to the unusual suspects,” she said. “I am constantly reminding myself and others that it’s not the affordable housing committee – it’s the Housing Committee. We need to take a broader look at the full housing market and the variety of constituencies that are out there.”


The city’s housing stock has been the subject of debate and studies for years. Until recently, the growth in housing stock was largely confined to subsidized projects using federal dollars and targeting low-income residents, and existing rental stock was old and not well-maintained.

The city is now experiencing a notable increase in the number of market-rate and luxury apartments and condominiums, and landlords are beginning to invest more money in their buildings. That’s prompting concern from residents that they will soon be priced out of the city.

Portland’s rental housing market was the subject of a recent Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald special report, “No Vacancy,” which found that rents in the city had risen 40 percent in the past five years.

Housing concerns are also being felt in South Portland, where city councilors are establishing a task force to look for potential solutions, amid calls from some renters to adopt a policy of rent control.

Wednesday’s meeting, which runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, will feature national housing expert Chris Herbert, the managing director of Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. City staff will provide an overview of Portland’s existing housing resources, while other stakeholders will give short presentations about the state of housing from different perspectives.

Duson said the first three meetings of the Housing Committee will set a baseline for the panel’s work. She said there was broad support among councilors to look for ways to encourage more housing through changes to zoning rules, which have been amended recently to allow for higher residential density and fewer parking requirements.


On Wednesday, the committee will receive an overview of what the city already does to promote housing.

According to a Jan. 22 memo from city planners to the committee, Portland currently has 11 financial programs, ranging from tax breaks to federal grants, and about 12 policies aimed at providing affordable housing. One of those policies requires developments of 10 units or more to keep at least 10 percent of the units affordable to middle-income earners. Another policy requires developers who remove units of housing to pay into a special Housing Trust Fund, which currently has a balance of $468,500.

The city has spent about $13.5 million in local and federal funds to create about 999 affordable housing units in 31 separate buildings since 2000. Only 24 of those units are owner-occupied, while the remainder are rentals. The average subsidy per unit is about $13,600.


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