A regional planning agency is raising money to create several communities of tiny homes for asylum seekers, saying the initiative will be cheaper and more effective than the current practice of providing hotel rooms.

The communities also would include onsite social services and legal assistance for the residents.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a coalition of 25 communities, will formally announce the capital campaign on Thursday.

GPCOG Director of Regional Partnerships Belinda Ray said the agency is looking to purchase 200 tiny homes, with bathrooms and kitchens, from a Canadian manufacturing company to serve as transitional housing communities at yet-to-be selected sites in the metro region. The communities could range in size depending on the capacities of the host communities.

“You’re trying to create a place where providers can come in and (serve) a large population of people at once and then create transitional housing around it,” Ray said. “That way you’re not relying on hotels, which are incredibly expensive and are scattered all over the place.”

Ray said the group is eyeing about six locations in four communities where the units could be installed, along with some sort of community or welcome center, to host supportive services, such as translation, legal aid and medical help. She said the agency is considering additional ideas and locations as they arise. Ray would not identify the potential sites.


Ray said the council hopes to raise at least $1.5 million, which would help leverage additional public and private investment. She estimates that it will take about $20 million to purchase and install the homes and make the necessary infrastructure improvements. And she said the size of each community would be determined in partnership with municipal and school leaders.

Portland has become an increasingly popular destination for people from other countries, primarily sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, who come to the United States seeking asylum from political, personal or religious persecution. Public officials say many asylum seekers are educated professionals who are eager to work. But they are unable to apply for a work permit for at least six months after they file their asylum application, so they often rely on public assistance.

According to the council of governments, families seeking asylum are fleeing violence, human rights abuses and armed conflict in their home countries. Their arrival in Maine is part of a global shift in populations. The war in Ukraine and protracted conflicts in countries in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are among the factors behind the high numbers, the agency said.

In 2019, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived in Portland unexpectedly from the southern U.S. border, prompting the city to use the Portland Expo as an emergency shelter. The community mobilized to help, donated money and found housing, thanks in part to efforts by the council of governments to organize a home placement program.


Asylum seekers have continued to arrive in Portland, despite the pandemic and a growing housing crisis. As of Wednesday, Portland officials said the city was serving 290 families, totaling 1,002 individuals. The vast majority – 270 families, totaling 943 individuals – were staying in hotels paid for with federal funding.


Ray noted that federal funding for hotel rooms is only available through October. If it expires, municipalities have expressed concerns about being able to pay for the hotel costs, which GPCOG estimated run about $12,000 a month per family, including room and food costs.

Nomad Micro Homes, based in Vancouver, Canada, makes modular dwellings – with kitchens – that cost about $45,000 and can be erected in one day. The unit is among those being considered by the Greater Portland Council of Governments to house asylum seekers. Image courtesy of Nomad Micro Homes

By contrast, Ray said rent for the tiny homes would be about $500 a month for utilities, property management and maintenance, not including initial construction costs. Assuming a food allowance of $835 a month for a family of four, the monthly costs would be about $1,300, she said.

GPCOG estimated that the annual savings in the first year, including the cost of the units, would be $3 million compared to hotel costs. For subsequent years, the savings would amount to $30 million annually.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, which helps provide services and find housing for asylum seekers currently staying in hotel rooms, has been looking for better ways to serve people in Greater Portland. That’s how she learned about efforts in Phoenix to create a small community of tiny homes for new arrivals using funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Chitam recalled how in 2019 they were able to secure about two dozen homes in Brunswick for asylum seekers. Those homes, she said, were on the same street and close to services such as grocery stores, hospitals and schools, and a nearby community center became a place for new Mainers to learn English.

“It’s creating community so people don’t have to feel like they’re alone,” Chitam said.


That model not only helped make those seeking asylum more comfortable and better able to integrate into the community, she said, but it also made it easier and more efficient for service providers to help. Right now, she said, service providers are struggling to serve people who are staying at five or six different hotels.

“This is going to reduce the burden on municipalities as well as service providers to respond to new arrivals, because you can do it in a very efficient way,” Chitam said. “It’s centering the people and putting the resources and service providers around them in a way folks don’t have to walk to 10 different places to find services. The services come to them.”


Chitam hopes that people will see their donation to the effort as an investment – one that will be repaid by the recipients once they are able to work and contribute their culture and experiences to their new communities.

“I hope people are able to respond positively,” she said. “They might (donate) money now to invest into these people, but the return of what these people are able to give back will be more than what we put out to invest in them.”

The transitional housing effort is separate from the state’s efforts to house asylum seekers.


In May, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior housing adviser, said the state was looking to develop housing for 140 asylum-seeking families in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick. He said the state would pay the rents for up to two years, which he said should give the families enough time to file their asylum claims and receive work authorization from the federal government and become more self-sufficient.

Payne suggested in an email Wednesday that the state is making progress, but did not have any additional information to release at this time.

The state also was helping Portland search for a temporary emergency shelter for more than 200 homeless individuals who are currently staying in hotels. The temporary shelter would only be used until the city’s new homeless services center opens in Riverside in 2023. But city officials announced June 16 that they would not be able to move forward with the temporary shelter because of development rules included in the New Green Deal for Portland ordinance enacted by voters in 2020.

A spokesperson for the council of governments said it looked into buying more conventional modular homes from Maine manufacturers, but it would have taken too long because of back orders.

Instead, the organization is looking at units manufactured by Nomad Micro Homes, based in Vancouver, Canada. The 357-square-foot units each would have a loft and a main floor with a kitchen and a bathroom that includes a stand-up shower. They would cost about $45,000 each and could be installed in a day, once site work is complete.

Ray expects that people would be allowed to stay in the transitional housing for up to a year. That should give them enough time to secure their work permits and a more permanent home, she said.



While the project is geared toward asylum seekers, Ray said that the housing units can last decades and could be used to help other workforce needs in the future.

The “Safe in Maine Fund,” will be administered by the council’s nonprofit arm, the Center for Regional Prosperity, which was founded in 2018 and is overseen by a five-member board of directors. The center’s past initiatives include work on broadband, mobility and opioid misuse.

The city of Westbrook donated $5,000 from Mayor Michael T. Foley’s contingency fund.

“The city of Westbrook is excited to support the Safe in Maine Fund as we work together with our region to help with the resettlement of new families coming to Maine,” Foley said in a written statement. “Working to provide transitional housing is critical to providing safe and stable solutions while also having a more effective use of limited taxpayer dollars. We look forward to participating in these efforts and thank you to the Greater Portland Council of Government for bringing us all together.”

Portland officials, who have been calling on state and regional leaders to take a more proactive role, also welcomed initiative.

“It’s imperative that we continue to work regionally and across the state to properly address this humanitarian crisis,” Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said in a written statement. “The city of Portland is proud to be a welcoming city, but we cannot do this on our own, and so I’d like to thank those who have and will contribute to this critical fund.”

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