South Portland voters may not have the opportunity to vote for repurposing Mahoney Middle School into workforce or low-income housing. A number of council members support the city manager’s and the facilities ad-hoc committee’s recommendation to move South Portland City Hall and department offices into Mahoney. In a costly facilities assessment report, Sebago Technics proposed a multi-million-dollar bond measure that, in part, would pay for the repurposing of Mahoney for city offices and the renovation and expansion of the library. A prior facilities assessment proposed only new police and fire stations.

A scheduled South Portland City Council vote that could have put the proposed bond referendum before voters as early as next year was tabled after the March 14 workshop in which many community members objected to the city’s process and to the lack of consideration for critically needed affordable housing. Instead of voting on the one proposal at the next council meeting on April 16, the council will hear a proposal from the South Portland Housing Authority (a non-municipal government nonprofit) in addition to another proposal for consolidating city offices, this time including a community theater and preservation of the basketball court.

The city’s own Affordable Housing Committee was effectively shut out of participating in the Mahoney School recommendation. During the committee’s Nov. 2, 2023 meeting, the question was posed: “What is the best way that the housing committee can engage in the Mahoney Middle School discussion?” Response to the committee on Nov. 7, 2023: “The manager’s recommendation is to re-use the building for city facilities. Council will review it soon.”

Unfortunately, the City Council reviewed the city manager’s recommendation from a 2019, pre-COVID-19 perspective when a new middle school was approved to replace Mahoney and before housing costs (both rentals and purchases) became unaffordable to most people in South Portland. The city’s transfer station on O’Neil Street was sold to a developer in 2020. At that time, the developer’s application included nine single-family homes priced at $300,000. Last year, the developer estimated the cost had risen to $750,000. Today, the lone house under construction on the site lists for $849,000.

City property sold to developers (O’Neil Street and the Piggery) will eventually produce 54-58 market rate houses, condos or apartments. Mahoney can be made into an estimated 40 or 50 affordable units. Using vacant city-owned buildings for workforce/low-income housing is crucial, especially in South Portland. Profit-driven developers of new housing find favorable conditions in South Portland: no inclusionary zoning ordinance, no mandate to build a percentage of affordable (or mixed income) units, no task force with residents and councilors to oversee applications and monitor projects, and no accountability when proposed plans for open spaces or affordable units aren’t honored.

Developers are not alone in exploiting the city’s failure to prioritize affordable housing. At an Affordable Housing Committee meeting in January, one property manager said South Portland has become a very attractive place to be a landlord.

Affordable rental housing in an eastern district of South Portland – and improved student access to the city’s highest-ranking elementary schools – can begin with Mahoney. I encourage city leaders to explore relocating City Hall and department offices to a west-side district, thus providing much needed economic investment and convenient city services to residents with lower incomes and fewer resources than those on the east side.

Additionally, converting Mahoney to affordable housing will benefit all property taxpayers. The creation of offices does not qualify for federal and state funding, while limited income housing can be financed in a number of ways, not just by a bond referendum.

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