The two candidates for the South Portland District 1 City Council say they will prioritize housing for a variety of income levels to help deal with the fallout from the local and regionwide housing shortage.

Current District 4 City Councilor Linda Cohen, who recently moved to District 1, is running against Brendan Williams for the seat now held by Jocelyn Leighton, who is not seeking reelection Nov. 7.

Cohen is concerned about the lack of housing for residents who don’t qualify for affordable housing but can’t afford market rates. Williams would like to see a study on workforce housing in the city in order to determine an action plan.

District 1, east of Pine Street and primarily north of Cottage Road, encompasses the Willard Beach neighborhood and eastern portion of Ferry Village. Residents in all South Portland districts vote in all council elections.


“I don’t think that it’s just an affordable housing shortage that we’re dealing with,” Cohen said. “Based on the housing assessment that was presented to the City Council in 2021, there was a whole level in the middle that’s being missed.”



While affordable housing is needed, addressing the “missing middle,” as the assessment called it, is part of the solution, she said. The missing middle is considered housing for those making 60% to 120% of the area’s median incomeincome levels too high to qualify for affordable housing but too low to afford a home in an expensive market.

“We need to make sure that we’re not putting impediments in place that make it harder to build, whether that’s single-family homes or multifamily homes, in South Portland,” she said.

Williams said a further study of the city’s housing shortage would be helpful.

“I would ask for a study on the need for workforce and affordable housing in South Portland,” he said. “What demographic needs the units the most? What do most people get paid in the city?”


He emphasized that affordable housing and workforce housing are not the same but sometimes get lumped together, and meeting the housing needs of residents with different incomes is important.

“They’re two different things,” he said. “I would start by making sure we have a study, a framework, to work from that has bullet points of the steps we need to take to meet the demand.”


Williams also said that “land banking” and reserving land for only affordable or workforce housing is a tactic to consider.

Unhoused and asylum seekers

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and shelters in Portland had a limited capacity because of physical distancing requirements, South Portland hotels began operating as temporary shelters. In 2021, an influx of asylum seekers to the region added to the needs the city had to meet.

Both Williams and Cohen said South Portland is at its limit and its neighbors need to help.

“Portland and South Portland shouldn’t carry all the burden,” Williams said. “We need the state’s help, and I feel like the state’s kind of been in and out of the problem very casually and have not made it a priority.”

Cohen said South Portland has been left to fend for itself for too long.


“I think there needed to be, from the beginning, a collaboration between communities,” she said. “We ended up housing a population that did not originate here in South Portland, (that) came from other municipalities, and we didn’t even know that it was happening until it was here.”

Williams said the need for temporary housing for asylum seekers in the region will likely continue and the city and state must work on finding them permanent housing more quickly and get them to work sooner. Now, once someone formally seeks asylum in the United States, there is a wait period of six months before they can receive a work permit.

“We need these people in our state and we need them in South Portland,” he said. “They’re not coming to South Portland for Bug Light, they’re coming because they escape trauma and civil war in their countries. So, once they’re here, we’ve got to make sure they’re on the right track.”

Williams said the city should also consider going after community bonds and continue to work with nonprofits to provide services.

Cohen said asylum seekers “have a lot to contribute” but the government needs to find a way to get them to work sooner.

“We need their skills, we need them in the workforce and they just enrich our culture,” she said. “I would look to the federal government to stop the barriers of people coming into our country from being able to go to work.”


Mahoney building

Cohen and Williams said they could see the former Mahoney Middle School building, now city property, becoming a place to consolidate the city’s services.

“There was a time when I would have said, ‘let’s sell it and get some taxes from that property,’” Cohen said. “But now I’ve seen several scenarios of what it could possibly be if certain city buildings were brought under one roof.”

She said she would need more time to take an official stance on the building’s use because the costs of turning it into a new City Hall must be analyzed.

Williams said consolidating services is a likely route, but the city should also consider “being a landlord for commercial uses.”

“There’d be a lot of room left over,” he said. “That would bring revenue into the city, and I think that would be a good idea.”


He said housing could also be an option if the city were to consider selling the property.

Cohen, 68, who is not enrolled in a political party, is a real estate assistant who previously served as a city councilor from 2012 to 2018 and was mayor in 2015 and again in 2018. She is a former town manager of Monmouth and was South Portland’s city clerk from 1989 to 2001.

Williams, 35, a registered Democrat, is a former Human Rights Commission member and is a member of the Statewide Council For Independent Living. He ran unsuccessfully for the council last year. He is employed at a Portland restaurant.

For more information, including district maps and how to register to vote, go to and navigate to the “Elections and Voting” page.

This article was edited Oct. 12 to correct Linda Cohen’s current council district and the dates when she was mayor and on Oct. 17 to clarify that South Portland residents vote in all council elections, regardless of their district.  

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