In and Around the U.S. - Portland, Maine: Avesta brings affordable housing to Portland's art community

MISANI Special to the AmNews | 11/28/2011, 3:12 p.m.
In and Around the U.S. - Portland, Maine: Avesta brings affordable housing to Portland's art community


In and Around the U.S. - Portland, Maine: Avesta brings affordable housing to Portland's art community

"Back in 2008, the city of Portland put out a notice to the development companies to say we need more efficiency apartments in the city," said Greg Payne, development officer for Avesta Housing, a private, nonprofit housing organization in Portland, Maine. "So my agency, Avesta Housing, won that request for proposals and we set about trying to find a good place to put these efficiency apartments."

After a somewhat challenging few years of trying to find the right location for the proposed apartments, Avesta finally selected the appropriate place. "We found this site right in the heart of Portland's art district," he said, referring to the downtown location of the currently being constructed Oak Street Lofts, a four-floor building at 72 Oak Street off Congress Street, (from where this interview is being conducted, hard-hat and all).

Reflecting back to the first meeting with the community a little over a year ago, at which time Avesta shared its plans for 37 affordable, quality, efficiency apartments "for people of relatively low incomes," Payne shared the community's response: "Well, you are here right in the middle of the arts district. We have a lot of artists who contribute to the arts scene here who have their own art at some of the art studios in the neighborhood, but they can't afford to live here," they told Avesta.

"They said it would be great if you could have these apartments for the artists who work in this neighborhood, but can't afford to sleep here," he disclosed about the downtown corridor where the Maine College of Art is located, and where there are a number of art galleries, studios, museums, jewelry stores, restaurants and other businesses such as the Portland Stage Company, the city's leading theater company.

"They have a lot of [Maine College of Art] graduates from this area who stay in Portland, and a lot of them have very low incomes and they supplement their art income especially with service sector jobs right in this area...I think a lot of the artists end up having a supplemental source of income, but still generally the housing is too expensive for them," Payne said.

As a result the Avesta group listened to the community. However, they were also legally aware that they could not put out a call for people to be artists to be eligible for an apartment. "We could have some fair housing problems with that," Payne a former lawyer explained. "Low income housing tax credit apartments must be available to the general public." In view of that, according to Payne, an alternative plan of action was set into motion.

"We said we are not going to require that people be artists, but we are going to aggressively market to the artist community, and we are also going to make changes to the program here, make changes to the apartments, and to the overall project that makes it more attractive to the overall community," Payne said, adding candidly: "We kind of came into this with no intention of there being a tie into the arts community. It was really because at our first meeting with the neighborhood, they articulated a need for artist housing that we changed what we had in mind and decided to really make this project as attractive to the artist community as possible."