Portland officials and housing developers began the process Wednesday of trying to gauge the impact of a wide-ranging ordinance known as the Green New Deal for Portland that won approval Tuesday in Maine’s largest city.

The ordinance, Question C on the city ballot, was approved by nearly 60 percent of Portland voters.

In a city where high-end condos seem to be rising on every corner while some residents struggle to pay rent during a global pandemic, affordable housing has become an emotional flashpoint. That sense of crisis and frustration may help explain support for the Green New Deal for Portland, as well as new initiatives that will enhance protection for renters and raise the minimum wage to $15.

“I understand that referenda can often be an outgrowth of frustration with normal legislative channels that aren’t adequately addressing a problem,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which opposed the ordinance. “Maybe that’s what happened here.”

But the Green New Deal’s specific impacts are especially hard to discern, in part because the 15-page ordinance covers so much ground.

Opponents, especially affordable housing developers, have said the ordinance is vague and will be counterproductive, actually forcing developers to cancel hundreds of housing units in the planning stages. Payne said he hadn’t heard of that happening yet.

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Payne said most voters wouldn’t have waded through all the fine print, but that those who supported the ordinance likely were sending a signal.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re angry that the city isn’t doing more,’ ” he said. “If that’s one of the messages, maybe it’s important everyone understands it.”

Payne also is a development officer at Portland-based Avesta Housing, which has built 2,700 apartments in the state. As the ordinance now stands, he said one particular labor requirement is a “poison pill” that will create obstacles to building more affordable housing in the city.

That language requires contractors to hire an increasing share of apprentices on projects in the city. The level would be phased in over time, from 10 percent in 2021 and 2022, to 25 percent in 2025.

But Payne said Maine contractors typically are too small to be able to hire apprentices for one in four workers on a job site. He expects the affordable housing industry to study the rule’s impacts in the coming weeks and pursue some solution.

“If not,” Payne said, “we fear that affordable housing development activity in Portland may simply shift to surrounding towns, which would really be incredibly unfortunate, because we don’t think that’s what Portland voters were going for.”

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The apprenticeship rule was one of the requirements highlighted Wednesday by People First Portland organizers, who held a celebration and brief news conference in front of City Hall.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Jason Shedlock, regional organizer for the Laborer’s International Union, told the gathering. “We’ve talked about this issue for years.”

Behind Shedlock, supporters stood on the steps with signs, including one proclaiming, “Build a Better Portland. Green New Deal.”

The ordinance’s sweeping impact on several different policies appears to be unique in the country, according to Kate Sykes, a City Council candidate who was defeated Tuesday and former co-chair of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. The group formed the People First Portland political action committee to campaign for five of the six referenda on the ballot.

In an interview last month with the Portland Press Herald, Sykes said the ordinance was intentionally broad and far-reaching.

“We have to start looking at climate change as embedded in the systems that are creating it,” she said. “It’s a global problem related to development and human actions, and global capitalism more broadly. These piecemeal solutions are not actually going to address the problem.”

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The proposed ordinance touches on three distinct policy areas. It updates and changes energy-efficiency and roofing requirements in the city’s Green Building code; increases workforce housing requirements in certain new development projects while simultaneously lowering the allowable rents and sales prices, as well as the income limits for people qualifying for those units, and adds an apprenticeship requirement for city-funded projects that was previously rejected by the City Council. It also contains language that will introduce new labor, zoning and building rules.

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and all but one city councilor had opposed the ordinance. On Wednesday, Snyder said it will take time for city government to review the implications of the ordinance, as well as four other ballot questions that passed Tuesday.

“I think it’s really important that city staff have the time and opportunity to conduct further analysis on the range of impacts of all five questions now that they have voter approval,” Snyder said. “I’ll be looking to help build the council process so that we can understand specifics and near-term impacts.”

The impacts may be long lasting. The council can’t amend or repeal the ordinance for at least five years. Any changes during that period would have to come through another referendum, which could be initiated by the council.

City officials have said it may increase the cost of planned renovations on four elementary schools. They also have estimated it would add $8.8 million annually in construction costs to city projects and eliminate 90 percent of the local vendors that typically bid on projects.

Proponents say the ordinance will lead to more energy-efficient, solar-ready buildings and increase affordable housing.

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The new ordinance will require all city-funded projects over $50,000 to participate in a formal apprenticeship program. It also would require certain residential developments to include 25 percent of units at a price affordable to middle-income residents, as opposed to the preexisting 10 percent requirement. It also would lower the income levels determining who would qualify for those units.

Building a Better Portland, a political action committee formed to oppose the Green New Deal and other ordinances, said it was disappointed by the outcome, saying passage would create new challenges in trying to create more affordable housing in the city.

“We are committed to working with city leaders and other stakeholders to ensure that our city remains a great place to live, work and raise a family,” said David Farmer, the group’s treasurer. “The hard work of building a better Portland will continue for all of us.”

The full ordinance can be read on the city’s website.


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