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Updated: October 11, 2019

Portland housing 'crisis' takes center stage at mayoral debate

Four candidates in the Portland, Maine, mayoral election, debate on stage. Courtesy / Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce From left, Travis Curran, Kate Snyder, incumbent Ethan Strimling and Spencer Thibodeau at Thursday's mayoral debate in Portland.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and his three opponents in November’s mayoral race on Thursday all highlighted the lack of affordable housing as a priority problem — but would tackle it in different ways.

“Our city is at a crossroads,” Strimling said in his opening remarks at a debate hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, part of the Eggs & Issues event series. Around 400 people attended. 

Strimling, who has been mayor since December 2015, is seeking a second term. He's running against former Portland Board of Education Chair Kate Snyder, who served on the board for six years; Spencer Thibodeau, a real estate lawyer who serves on the Portland City Council, where he chairs the Sustainability and Transportation Committee; and Travis Curran, a waiter at Empire Chinese Kitchen, near Congress Square in the city. 

Portland’s growing pains were a common theme, with more agreement than disagreement on the need to create more affordable housing options for lower-wage earners, families and immigrants.

Their remarks came a day after the city issued a report showing that while Portland has made some progress in creating affordable housing, a number of challenges remain. That includes the fact that the three largest job sectors — office administration, sales and food preparation and service — have some of the lowest-paying jobs.

Both Strimling and Curran described the current situation as a crisis.

"This really is a crisis for our city," said Strimling, lamenting the fact that Portland wasn't able to provide 100 units of housing for 400 recently arrived asylum seekers. "In a city with 17,000 apartments, we couldn't find 100 that were affordable for the next generation of workers, of families. That is a crisis, that's why we have got to find a way to build more housing in this city." 

Strimling also said he'd propose a $15-an-hour minimum wage if re-elected, adding that "it's time to move those wages up" because the median income is half the amount needed to buy a home in Portland.

Offering the perspective of someone in an industry where many are paid minimum wage, Curran said he's lived in Portland his whole life and doesn't want to be forced out of city limits because of high rents.

“We have to really take it seriously, guys,” Curran said. “I don’t want to move to Westbrook.” Many of his remarks elicited laughter, and he later said he has a history in standup comedy. 

On a serious note, Curran's suggestions included rezoning for more multifamily units, and limits on Airbnb rentals. 

Snyder put some of the blame on high property taxes, and said she'd hate to see the city drive out families with kids in Portland schools. She also suggested changing some industrial zones in the city to residential. 

Bond financing for housing was a contentious issue, with Strimling favoring a proposed $10 million city housing bond and Snyder cautioning that strapping Portlanders with that kind of debt "is something that we need to be awfully careful about."

Broadening the discussion, Thibodeau said he would work with state government peers in Augusta to address the affordable housing problem.

"The city of Portland can't go it alone," he said, declaring that "the LePage era is over," and that city leaders need to collaborate with state partners. He also pledged that if elected he would seek to secure additional student housing at the University of Southern Maine, whose campus needs to grow, he said.

Election less than four weeks away

Thursday's debate was held less than four weeks before the Nov. 5 election. 

Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber, told Mainebiz she was pleased with the turnout and debate.

Quincy Hentzel of the Portland Regional Chamber of  Commerce
Courtesy / Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce
Quincy Hentzel, president and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

"I felt the event was a great discussion on important topics to the business community," she said.

"We clearly saw candidates' views on the role of mayor, how the mayor works with the Council and represents all constituents in the city. I hope attendees gained a better sense of where the candidates stand and how they would execute the role of mayor if elected."

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