“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.”

Pointing out another enhancing feature of the venture, Payne disclosed: “The arts district in Portland-and it’s not specific to the visual arts…it is really about the arts in total: music, video-all that is part of the thriving arts community in Portland. It is something that the city really wants to grow, and is really excited about the creative economy that is building up because of this neighborhood. So I think when artists hear about this new residential project going up in the neighborhood where they work, I think the first logical instinct is let’s have this place be a place we can actually afford to live in and continue to make our creative economy stronger.”

Projected for completion at the end of December, Oak Street Lofts is open to anyone over the age of 18. “Again what we’ve tried to do is target the artist community, but we really are not requiring that people be artists, so what could happen is that out of the 37 efficiency apartments we could end up having 20 artists and 17 people who come through our general marketing,”

With rents ranging from $500 to about $775 a month-including heat, hot water, electricity, and shared WiFi-the affordable, artist friendly, Oak Street Lofts is a locked building with security camera system, and 24-hour on call maintenance. In addition, there is on-site laundry, an elevator and limited parking for cars with scooter spots and storage for bicycles.

The units are approximately 400 square feet, with high ceilings, and large windows with natural sunlight. There are also extra large kitchen sinks, and deep storage space for artwork and supplies.

On the street level of the building facing Oak Street there is a ground floor gallery space for use by tenants. This space includes gallery lighting, artwork hanging systems, sculpture pedestals, stage lounge seating and a coffee area. Additionally, on a day-to-day basis, residents have access to the community room, which provides WiFi access for laptops, or a place to grab a cup of coffee and socialize with fellow residents.

On the second floor, there is a shared common space with sink, tables and work walls. There is a hallway picture hanging system with gallery lights. Chairs and a TV are also provided.

The arts community is about to experience the magic of affordable housing in the Portland arts district. Oak Street Lofts is the place. And the New Year never looked brighter.

For more information, please contact Avesta Housing at (207) 553-7780 x253.