Anyone who is concerned about dwindling affordable and workforce housing in Portland should be paying close attention to the 140 affordable units in the Munjoy South complex. Now bracketed near the eastern waterfront by multiple upscale hotels as well as Covetrus, Wex, the Roux Institute and Portland Foreside, the owners of Munjoy South are likely evaluating the prospects for terminating or aggressively reinterpreting the covenants that protect its affordable housing. How soon could they replace the complex with yet one more glass and steel building to house the growing monoculture of very wealthy individuals in the rapidly developing enclave?

Munjoy South is a community of 140 affordable townhouse apartments overlooking Portland Harbor and Casco Bay. Randy Billings/Staff Writer, File

Unlike its neighbors, Munjoy South is a thriving and economically and racially diverse neighborhood. Its 29 buildings include units with between one and four bedrooms, available to tenants whose income is either 50%, 60% or 80% of the Portland area median income. Many of the residents are recent immigrants, who tend small gardens to grow unique vegetables. Many are employed and rely on their neighbors to help with child care. It is common for school-aged children to speak two or more languages. The children’s playground is a gathering place for the community and for celebrations.

The threat to this community is real. One has only to look at the threatened loss of 25 units of income-capped housing in Topsham to see how quickly affordability covenants can be threatened by a developer. The owner of Whispering Pines allowed the property to slip into foreclosure and, with the approval of the federal government lender, proposed to sell it to a developer under an agreement that would allow the new owner to eliminate the income caps and exclude tenants without a Section 8 voucher. A competing offer by the local housing authority to purchase the project and maintain the income limits was not accepted by the owner.

Closer to home, Munjoy South is vulnerable to similar sorts of decisions that could be made beyond the control of local decision-makers. The Munjoy South development was built in 1967 using federal urban renewal funds, conditioned on a promise that the 140 units would be available to low-income tenants only, and would be so restricted for the “useful life” of the units, a term of art interpreted as 45 years.

When the complex was sold in 1997, the new owner received some financing that had a 30-year limit on the covenants. Maine Housing (also known as the Maine State Housing Authority) appears to believe that loan also extended the life of the affordability covenant for 45 years, to 2042. The property was sold a second time, in late 2018, and there is reportedly some disagreement between the current owner and Maine Housing as to whether the affordability covenants expire in 2027 (30 years) or in 2042 (45 years). It is also unclear whether Maine Housing would agree to let the owner reorganize the site and build new, upscale units as long as it rebuilds 140 income-limited units somewhere on the site.

While the enforcement of affordability covenants is the job of Maine Housing, the city of Portland should be doing everything possible to support the 45-year interpretation. It should also make it clear that it will not support any proposal that would reconfigure the existing housing into a smaller footprint to make room for the construction of new luxury, high-rise housing. That would result in the displacement of existing residents and the very significant disruption of the unique community that now exists in that location. The City Council should anticipate all possible threats to this complex, and act proactively to protect it. It should take an anticipatory position that it will not entertain amending the zoning to accommodate higher-density luxury housing, whether instead of, or in addition to, the current 140 affordable units.

Munjoy South and its affordable units are too important to the city’s and neighborhood’s racial, economic and cultural diversity for the site to be treated as just one more monocultural development opportunity. To lose them would be an inexcusable tragedy.

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