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Updated: October 14, 2020

Portland 'Green New Deal' referendum: Housing fix or Trojan horse?

A large under construction housing complex Photo / Maureen Milliken 58 Boyd St., in Portland, a Portland Housing Authority project, is one of many in the city's pipeline. Proponents of Question C on the city's Nov. 3 ballot say enough isn't being done for affordable housing in the city, but those opposed said approval of the referendum would put affordable housing development in jeopardy.
What is the exact wording of Portland referendum Question C, the Green New Deal?
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Five referedum questions on the Portland Nov. 3 ballot, the result of a People First Portland citizens initiative, aim to increase affordable housing, make development more attuned to climate change and elevate working and living situations for the city's residents. All five are strongly opposed by a variety of business, government and nonprofit organizations. Over the next three days, Mainebiz will take a look. Today's article focuses on Question C, the Green New Deal.

One thing everyone can agree on is that renters are increasingly priced out of Portland, development of housing isn't keeping pace and, by the way, the ocean is rising, with potential future effects on the state's largest city.

Question C, the Green New Deal referendum on the city's Nov. 3 ballot, aims to address those issues. Opponents, though, say that if approved, the new ordinance that would result would kill affordable housing development in the city and set back the city's efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The referendum question, some 4,500 words and 15 pages long (see sidebar), in general puts restrictions on developers, upping the amount of affordable units they must build, increases the specifics of energy efficient construction, creates rules for worker training and pay, and more.

"Something is broken," said Karen Snyder, representing People First Portland. "There's no magic bullet, but it's like a sieve now, with residents leaking out of the city, and [the referendums] are plugging certain holes."

But opponents say the lengthy, detailed referendum, which is summarized on the ballot, combines too large a variety of complex issues, is drawn from suppositions that don't address the reality of the development environment and will have the opposite effect of what's intended both for creation of affordable housing and helping deal with climate change.

"It's a Trojan horse," said Ethan Boxer-Macomber, of Anew Development, speaking at an Oct. 7 Eggs & Issues webinar sponsored by the Greater Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not green, it’s not new and it’s a bad deal for Portland."

Boxer-Macomber’s firm has been on the forefront of several affordable and LEED-certified developments in the Portland area, and he's one of 10 developers that signed a letter Wednesday opposing Question C. “It’s incredibly distracting from work we’re trying to do," he said.

On Tuesday, Portland Mayor Kate Snyder (no relation) and seven of the city's nine councilors issues a news release opposing all five of the People First Portland referendums, saying they would undo progress the city has worked hard to achieve over the past few years.

If approved, the City Council can't make changes to the new ordinances for five years, and changes can only be made by a ballot vote of the city's residents.

Proponents: Housing for city residents

Those in favor of the ordinance say it would increase the amount of affordable housing in a city where more and more people are being priced out and housing is hard to come by, while also taking steps toward easing environmental impact of development.

The group, which formed from the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America political party, has the support of a variety of labor unions and the Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council, as well as advocacy groups the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, Black P.O.W.E.R, Southern Maine Workers’ Center and the Portland Maine Green Party.

The development boom of the last three years has done nothing to help city residents looking for housing they can afford, said Karen Snyder of People First Portland. She said, instead, it's been aimed at tourists, the hotel industry and wealthy seasonal residents.

"Portland hasn't really done that well developing residential, long-term housing," she said, citing a report on Portland housing by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban and Development released in December. The study cites the city's goal of adding 2,557 housing units by 2025. In 2015, when that goal was adopted, that was 256 units a year. At the time, 29% of the city's housing was affordable for the area median income. Based on city residents’ income, that number should be between 53% and 62%, according to HUD.

The 2019 HUD study calls for 136 to 159 units of affordable housing a year built, while the city's Affordable Housing Fund application sets a goal of 65 to 90 units, based on available funding.

Karen Snyder said that the referendum proposal adds to ordinances already in place, strengthening what the city has already done.

Several trade unions, including the Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council, support the measure.

"We want to be sure that Portland is a livable city for our 17 affiliates' current and future members," John Napolitano, president of the trades council, told Mainebiz Tuesday.

"That said, most critical to our membership is the Green New Deal," he said. "Its goals for working families are quite simple: when Portland spends taxpayer dollars on construction, they should commit to safe worksites, a fair wage for workers and commonly-accepted job training standards so that we're ensuring we have the craftspeople to fuel Portland's growth for the future."

Opponents: 'Derail creation of affordable housing'

Opponents include groups that range from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, Maine Real Estate and Development Association, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Greater Portland Board of Realtors and Retail Association of Maine.

Wednesday morning, the Building a Better Portland campaign, representing 10 developers who build affordable housing in the city, publicly released a letter opposing the referendum saying it "would do more harm than good," and the result would "derail the creation of affordable housing" in Portland.

"The unintended consequences of this proposed ordinance are real and dangerous," said David Farmer, treasurer of Building a Better Portland.

City and development officials say that with policies just adopted over the last few years, it takes time to build the housing. Some 900 units are in the city's pipeline, though PFP points out that only about half of those are affordable housing.

"Question C would have severe, negative repercussions for efforts to increase the availability of affordable housing in Portland," said the Building a Better Portland letter Wednesday. The letter is signed by Anew Development, Avesta Housing, Community Housing of Maine, CWS Architects, Developers Collaborative, Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, Portland Housing Authority, Shalom House, the Szanton Co. and Volunteers of America Northern New England.

"The proposal would drive affordable housing construction costs up by hundreds of thousands of dollars, which could disqualify Portland projects already struggling to meet the cost limitations outlined in Maine’s Qualified Allocation Plan," the letter says. "Additionally ... it would make the vast majority of Maine construction companies – many of which are valued partners in the creation of affordable housing – unable to work on projects that receive public funding or support because they cannot meet the new restrictions imposed by the ordinance.

"Question C puts at risk future affordable housing projects and hurts Maine construction companies and their employees who otherwise would be put to work expanding access to quality housing for low-income and working Maine families. Portland needs more housing," the letter says. "Unfortunately, Question C makes it much harder for worthwhile projects to move forward."

Also opposed is the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which in more than two decades has never taken a position on a local referendum question according to an Oct. 5 news release urging voters to reject Question C. The coalition is made up of 135 groups and businesses ranging from construction companies and banks, to AARP, local housing authorities, CEI, GrowSmart Maine, and more. 

“The so-called Portland green new deal is so bad for affordable housing, we felt we had to stand up and oppose it,” said Greg Payne, MAHC director, in the release. “Portland’s green new deal is so poorly written, it will cause the housing crisis to get worse," he said. "There are hundreds of affordable apartments in the pipeline in Portland, and we’re concerned that they simply won’t be built if  Question C passes.”

What's in Question C?

One of the biggest changes in the new law would be to the city's inclusionary zoning requirement for affordable housing. Currently, any development of more than 10 units must make 10% of them "affordable," with affordable being figured by a matrix based on the area median income and the standard housing costing no more than 30% of that income. Developers can avoid the requirement by paying a fee to the city that goes into an affordable housing fund. The referendum calls for raising the percentage of affordable units to 25% if they remain affordable for 30 years, 50% if they remain affordable for 20 years and 100% if they remain affordable for 10 years.

The ordinance, in general, requires solar-ready or living-roof standards for all building projects that get $50,000 or more in public money, sets higher standards for worker pay and training on publicly funded projects, expands "acceptable pathways" for energy efficiency certification to include Passive House, Living Building or Green Globes, requires the city to monitor use of fossil fuel infrastructure and develop plans to reduce it and to meet emissions targets, and more.

The mayor and councilors, in their letter, said that the environmental building requirements would undo the work done on the One Climate effort the city is doing jointly with South Portland.

Boxer-Macomber said those in support of the referendum "have good intentions," but the depiction of the city's affordable housing industry now as corporate developers making big profits at the expense of residents is a false narrative.

"The whole idea about corporations profiting, when the vast majority (of the area's affordable housing developers) are not-for-profit corporations," he said. "What we should be doing is continuing to invest in a democratic process that's yielded such good results."

Karen Snyder, speaking for People First Portland, said, "The proof is in the pudding. Facts matter, and the problem I see with the opposition is it has no facts, they're speculating. They're just doing a Chicken Little."

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