August 27, 2018

South Portland moves forward with affordable housing on former church site

Courtesy / South Portland Housing Authority
Courtesy / South Portland Housing Authority
This rendering shows the planned front fašade of the South Portland Housing Authority's new 42-unit affordable housing building, at the corner of Main Street and Aspen Avenue.

South Portland Housing Authority's purchase of 611 Main St. moves it closer to the goal of building 42 affordable housing apartments and commercial space there.

The property consists of the former St. John the Evangelist Church, plus a former parish house and school building around the corner on Aspen Avenue, totaling 19,199 square feet. The property also includes a parking lot for the three buildings.

The housing authority purchased the property from CRT LXXIV LLC for $1.05 million. Frank O'Connor, Tom Moulton and Katie Millett from NAI The Dunham Group brokered the sale, which closed July 31.

Main Street is also Route 1 through this section of the city.

"We had our eye on it for potential development," South Portland Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Hulsey said. "We thought it would be a tremendous place in South Portland that needed revitalization and some commercial activity. We thought it would be a great spot for housing."

Church decline

St. John the Evangelist was the home parish of Catholics of the Thornton Heights, Redbank, Cash Corner, Pleasantdale and Maine Mall area since 1940, according to The church was built in 1939-40. In 1950, after several wartime housing complexes were built, the population of the parish swelled to 500 families. It peaked in 1988 at 1,935 families.

The church finance committee recommended closing the church in 2013, according to a Forecaster story at the time. The committee's recommendation cited reduced church revenue, aging buildings and the need for costly repairs.

Hundreds on waiting list

Brooks More, South Portland Housing Authority's director of development, said the authority has 866 households on its waiting list for affordable housing.

"The city had identified this corridor for economic development and revitalization," More said, noting that the city has performed streetscape improvements in the neighborhood, including new sidewalks and light poles. "Since I started last fall, just driving up that street you could see they started to create a sense of place up there," he said. "So this building will really build on that work the city has done."

The building had been vacant about four years, said Hulsey.

According to its website, the mission of housing authority, which was established in 1943 to provide defense housing, is to provide quality housing for low-to-moderate income, elderly, individuals with disabilities, and families in need. It owns and/or manages over 700 units of housing.

Hulsey said the existing buildings, including the church, will be torn down. A 40,000-square-foot, four-story building will be built with ground-floor commercial units and upper-story residential. In the back of the lot, plans call for creating three individual house lots and 10,000 square feet of open space for community gardens, a playground or something similar. The apartment building will have common rooms for residents that will also be rented out for neighborhood functions.

In addition to retail space, the housing authority is talking with the South Portland Police Department about establishing a satellite community police office there, said More. It is looking at energy-efficiency measures for the building's construction, including installing rooftop solar panels, More said.

Competitive financing

The cost of new construction is estimated at $9 million to $10 million. Financing is expected to come through a mix of a low-income housing tax credit, commercial loans or mortgage debt, and housing equity, said Hulsey. The financing is not yet in place.

According to the National Housing Law Project, the low-income housing tax credit program was created in 1986 and is the largest source of new affordable housing in the nation. The program is administered by the Internal Revenue Service.

"It's competitive process," Hulsey said. "We feel like this is a great site for this type of project, so we hope this competes well with other projects in the state."

The housing authority received unanimous support from the City Council for inclusion of the property under the affordable housing tax-increment financing program.

According to the Maine State Housing Authority, the program offers municipalities a flexible financing tool to assist affordable housing projects and support related infrastructure and facilities by designating a specific area of the municipality as an affordable housing development district and adopting an affordable housing development program for the district.

Neighborly feel

The housing authority hopes that ground-floor commercial will help create a neighborly feel, said Hulsey.

"There's not a lot of street activity there, so we hope that, with the commercial space, we can have a local market, perhaps a grocery store — something the neighbors can walk to and use," he said.

At the moment, said More, the closest grocery stores in the area requires driving to the Maine Mall or east to Knightville.

"We don't have a commercial tenant lined up yet, it is a great opportunity for new commercial activity and for local markets looking to expand," he noted.

To qualify for housing, a single person's income would be restricted to no more than $37,000 per year, and a family of four to $54,000, said Hulsey. Rents are expected to range from $845 per month for a one-bedroom apartment to $1,406 for three bedrooms.

The timeline calls for requesting construction bids in the spring of 2019, beginning construction in the fall, with completion by summer 2020.

The need for this type of project is acute, said Hulsey.

"Here in Greater Portland, the rents are very high and we see a lot of demand for affordable housing," he said. "We have far more applicants than we have spaces."


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