The South Portland City Council opted last week not to immediately pursue zoning changes to allow the vacant Mahoney Middle School building to be used for transitional housing.

Councilors said, however, that they are open to exploring changes to the zoning ordinances, which will take time, to help create a pathway for transitional housing to shelter families in the city while they work to secure permanent residences.

The nonprofit Greater Portland Family Promise had proposed renting space at the former school building for the housing.

“What Greater Portland Family Promise wants to do is run a transitional housing program in a portion of the lower level of Mahoney School for 10 families or 39 individuals, whichever happens first, as families come in different sizes,” Executive Director Michelle Lamm said at the workshop.

The city’s shelter ordinance would allow Mahoney, which is in the medium-shelter zone, to house up to 39 people.

The plan called for a STEM classroom to be renovated to house up to three families; the fitness room for two families; the art room, three; and another classroom, two. The main office would be used by staff and the kitchen would be available for families to cook their own meals. Nearby restrooms would be renovated and include showers.


GPFP proposed signing a two-year lease with the city, renting the space for $68,400 per year.

The plan, however, would require amendments to the city’s shelter ordinance, which does not differentiate between transitional housing and emergency shelters. Under the ordinance, staff at a facility must have clear sightlines of occupants at all times.

“We’re not a congregate open room,” Lamm said. “We’re private rooms where the staff would not have sightlines to families when they’re sleeping.”

Councilor Elyse Tipton had proposed the topic be discussed at a workshop with the understanding Mahoney may not ultimately be the right location.

“If the idea is infeasible, then it’s my opinion that we need to look at our shelter ordinance with fresh eyes and review what changes may be needed to safely house families in transition in South Portland,” Tipton said Monday.

Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, agreed.


“I think there’s a possibility that if the council can’t quite agree on using Mahoney specifically, that we really should take another look at our zoning and look at churches and help to let them answer the call,” Kessler said.

GPFP and its partnering organizations have used churches in the region for transitional and temporary housing, primarily for asylum seekers. However, City Manager Scott Morelli noted that churches are only allowed to operate as temporary, emergency shelters for up to six months in South Portland.

“Anything longer than that … they would need to come into code compliance and be prepared to make renovations to their facilities in order to accommodate and become truly transitional housing,” Morelli said.

Representatives from the Governor’s Office, MaineHousing and Catholic Charities of Maine attended the workshop.

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