Advocates: Loss of Eastland apartments is blow to homeless community

With burgeoning developments, inflating rents and increased competition over housing in Portland, it’s the city’s homeless population who stand to suffer, according to some affordable housing advocates.

Since 2006, downtown Portland has lost over 100 affordable, rental homes without replacement, including 60 homes for women at the YWCA, seven apartments at 660 Congress St., and the upcoming transition of 54 apartments at the Eastland Park Hotel, according to the Maine People’s Alliance.

An effort by the City Council to close a regulatory loophole exempting one hotel from an ordinance designed to ensure affordable rental housing was passed on Monday night following nearly an hour of testimony from homeless and homeless advocates in the city.

Conflicting language in the Housing Replacement Ordinance allowed Ohio-based investment group, RockBridge Capital to receive a $2.5 million exemption in fees that it would have owed the city for eliminating 50 residential rental units at the Eastland Park Hotel. The company bought the High Street hotel in February.

The ordinance charges $50,000 per lost unit to real estate developers seeking to convert permanent housing to a non-residential use.

The loophole closed at Monday’s meeting had allowed an exemption for "consolidation or elimination of dwelling units within an existing structure”; now it only applies to cases where the square footage of permanent living space was unchanged.

“The intent is to be remedial, to create consistency and to make sure that the language of the ordinance conforms with some changes to other aspects of the code that has passed since,” said city councilor John Anton. Anton said the exemption was intended to protect property owners seeking to convert multiple small rentals units into larger single units.

But Monday night’s action by the city council will not have any retroactive effect on the exemption granted to RockBridge Capital.

Residents of the Eastland and housing advocates turned out in force to support the closing of the loophole and testify to the increasing competition and rising rents in Portland, which they say threaten to exacerbate the city’s homelessness situation.

“I live and work in downtown Portland, I grew up in this city, pay taxes in this city and my foot is stuck in this loophole,” said Alyssa Hall, a current resident of one of the Eastland’s rental units who said she is “’a couple paychecks away from homelessness” herself.

Hall, whose grandmother lived in the same block of Eastland housing in 1972, said that making rent is often difficult for single people in Portland. “I know I’ll be okay because I’ve had enough stability, enough education and family, but not everybody has that,” Hall said.

Rent at the Eastland apartments ran the gamut, from $400 and $500 for “efficiency” apartments and up to $1,100 for roomier accommodations, according to Homeless Voices for Justice.

Affordable housing advocates cite the 2006 closing of the Portland YWCA as the first in a series of losses that threaten to exacerbate Portland’s homelessness situation.

“There were 60 units for women to rent with very low rent, about $100 a week,” said Amy Regan, community organizer for Homeless Voices for Justice.

After the closure of the YWCA, Regan said the Preble Street Resource Center used its day shelter space at night as a place to house homeless women. Preble Street kept the arrangement going until the Florence House — a facility for homeless women, located on Valley Street — opened in 2010.

“The Florence House has provided some affordable housing but not nearly in the range that the YWCA did,” said Regan. “Now we see a lot of women doubling up [in single person apartments] and having to make difficult choices and stay in unsafe situations.”

Regan said rents in the $500 range are becoming increasingly difficult to find as developers seek to combine multiple units into larger, single units or change the intended use of the space.

“I do think the developer took advantage,” Regan said of RockBridge Capital, but her qualms don’t lie solely with the developer.

“The fact that the ordinance was redrafted in a way that created a brand new exemption that a developer came in and was granted was really frustrating to us,” she said.

Regan said she was happy to hear the city take responsibility for the loophole as a clerical error. While it hardly softens the blow of losing 54 units of affordable housing, she said that the nearly hour-long public comment portion of Monday’s meeting was a heartening show of support for local homeless and working poor.

Former state representative Herb Adams bemoaned the loss of the Eastland housing, and repeatedly urged the council to use their “moral suasion” to request that RockBridge Capital work with the tenants to find a solution to their sudden loss of housing.

“I’ve seen this council use that suasion with Portland businesses, now here is a chance for you to do the same for tenants who are in a real situation,” said Adams.

Efforts to reach the Eastland for comment were unsuccessful.