A  project approved last week by the Portland Planning Board will add sorely needed affordable family units to the city’s housing mix, officials said.

“The type of housing being provided here is necessary,” Planning Board Chair Brandon Mazer said. “We are not seeing a ton of family housing in general coming in. We are seeing a lot of studios and one-bedrooms, so this is really meeting some of our need.”

The July 13 Planning Board approval comes as a new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition illustrates the city’s need for affordable housing.

The Community House of Maine and Portland Housing Development Corp. project, part of a larger redevelopment at the Mercy Hospital site in the West End, consists of 95 units of senior and family housing in two buildings to be constructed on Winter Street. Winter Landing at 91 Winter St. will have 52 one-bedroom apartments for seniors and Equinox at 73 Winter St. will include six studios, 15 one-bedrooms, 13 two-bedrooms and nine three-bedroom units.

More than half the Winter Landing apartments will be reserved for households making no more than 50 percent of the area’s median income – $35,315 for an individual; 20 will be reserved for households at or below 60 percent of the median household income – $42,378; and 15 will be set aside for people who have been staying at a homeless shelter more than 180 days.

Twenty-six of the Equinox units will be for tenants earning no more than 50 percent of the area’s median income, 17 will be for those making no more than 60 percent, and 10 will be set aside for women and families working on substance use disorder recovery through Mercy Hospital’s McAuley Residence program.

“This is going to be an asset to the West End and it’s good for our city,” Planning Board member Austin Smith said.

The City Council also voted unanimously this week to provide tax increment financing for the affordable housing projects. Those agreements would return half of property taxes generated by the new development – estimated to be roughly $2.81 million in all – to help offset operating costs over the next 30 years.

The project at 73 Winter St. is projected to receive a tax benefit of $1.34 million, or an average of about $44,600 a year, while the 91 Winter St. project is projected to receive $1.47 million, or an average of about $49,000 a year.

Housing in Portland, like many other areas in the country, is increasingly difficult to afford, especially for low-income families. The 2021 Out of Reach report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition said that a worker in Maine making the state’s minimum wage of $12.15 an hour must work 55 hours a week to afford a market-rate one-bedroom apartment and 70 hours a week to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment. To afford the fair market rate for a two-bedroom residence in Portland requires a $30.62 hourly wage, or $63,680 a year, close to double the median wage for renters in the city.

The state Legislature recently passed a bill establishing a commission to examine housing shortages for low- and middle-income households and review measures to increase housing opportunities for them. A report is expected in early November.

According to Portland’s 2020 Housing Report, there is a five-year waitlist for Section 8 housing and more than 1,300 households are on the waitlist for public housing, despite a push in recent years for more affordable housing in the city. In 2020, 176, or close to 65 percent of the housing units approved by the Planning Board, were affordable housing units.

Since 2000, the city has used more than $17 million in federal and local funding and provided $37 million in tax breaks to developers to support the creation of 1,600 affordable housing units. On Monday, the City Council approved using $400,000 in Home Investment Partnership Program funding to support the Equinox project and $200,000 to support the Winter Landing project.

The other half of the Mercy Hospital redesign plan – NewHeight Group is teaming up with Red Fern to renovate the old hospital into a mixed-use building – will add another 170 housing units, 162 in the hospital building and eight next door at the Morrison House.

Of these units, 153 will be market rate and 17 will be affordable. There will be 37 studios, 131 one-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments.

The hospital building will also house a medical clinic, self storage facility, cafe and co-working office space.

Erin Cooperrider, principal of the NewHeight Group, said the project is “just a little bit behind” the Winter Street affordable housing project.

“The site plan and subdivision application has received two workshops and will be back, in August we hope, for a public hearing,” Cooperrider said.

Earlier this year, the Portland Historic Preservation Board granted a certificate of appropriateness for the exterior improvements to the building, which sits in the West End Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The hospital building was sold in February 2020 to NewHeight Red Fern LLC for $11.5 million, according to assessing records. Mercy, which opened the State Street hospital in 1943, is phasing out its use of the building and shifting operations to its Fore River campus, which is expected to be completed by next year.

Press Herald Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this article.


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