Rally cry: 'We need housing'

PORTLAND – The city has lost more than 100 affordable rental units over the past five years and needs to clarify an ordinance meant to protect its housing stock, advocates for the homeless said at a rally today in Congress Square.

Crafted during a housing crunch nearly 10 years ago, Portland’s housing replacement ordinance requires developers to replace units they eliminate, or pay into a development fund. It has been criticized by real estate interests, which say it hurts economic development.

But advocates said the ordinance isn’t working as intended: They noted the loss of 60 homes for women when the YWCA was torn down, the elimination of seven apartments at 660 Congress Street and the pending conversion of 54 apartments at the Eastland Park Hotel.

"We say ‘enough,’ we need housing," Amy Regan, a community organizer for Homeless Voices for Justice, told the gathering.

Regan called on the Portland City Council to change the ordinance language to better define the original intent when it meets June 6 for a scheduled vote on an amendment.

The amendment reflects concerns following the recent sale of the Eastland Park Hotel, and plans by the new owners to convert apartments back to hotel rooms. The city decided the hotel was exempt from the ordinance, because the apartments didn’t exist when the historic building first opened.

The proposed amendment is intended to address the conversion or elimination of rental units in an existing building, according to Nicole Clegg, the city’s spokeswoman. It has the support of the city’s housing committee, she added.

Clegg also defended the city’s track record on affordable housing, noting it has funneled $6.7 million of government money over the past 10 years to help create 500 new units.

"We take the need for affordable housing very seriously," she said.

Clegg also noted three projects that are under way or planned — on High Street; at the former Adams School on Munjoy Hill; and a second phase of Pearl Place, in Bayside — that will add more than 100 new rental units.

But Clegg acknowledged that the city lacks data to know whether Portland has experienced a net loss of rental housing over the past decade, notably through the conversion of apartments to condominiums.

Either way, a lack of affordable housing in the city is evident at homeless shelters, advocates said. They displayed banners with statistics that included the estimate that 7,000 people were forced to stay in an emergency shelter at some point last year.

One of the biggest shortages, Regan said, is one-room efficiency apartments. Some of those are at the Eastland, and rent for roughly $500 a month.

"People paying $500 are going to have a hard time finding another apartment," Regan said.

Clegg said the new owners of the Eastland have said they will try to find alternative housing for the displaced residents.

The seven apartments at 660 Congress St. are in a now-vacant building owned by Roxanne Quimby, the conservationist who had previously planned to create artist studios there. The City Council granted Quimby an exemption to replacing the units, saving her $406,000 in fees.

Housing advocates hope the amendment will clarify the city’s rules for affordable housing, according to John Anton, a city councilor who also heads up a nonprofit, affordable housing investment fund.

Anton, who spoke at the rally, said he thinks the ordinance has conflicting language. The city has done a good job at creating new affordable housing, he said, but needs to do more to preserve what’s already available.

During the rally, Anton noted that the city has a strong historic-preservation ordinance. "It’s OK to preserve history, but not okay to preserve housing," he said. "I think we have it backwards."

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or