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Portland to re-examine housing replacement rule

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Portland to re-examine housing replacement rule

PORTLAND — The city is getting ready to review a housing ordinance that has come under fire in the past few months from critics who feel it has been applied arbitrarily.

The Housing Replacement Ordinance is a 7-year-old rule that requires property owners to either replace or pay for housing stock they remove from the market. The ordinance applies to properties with three or more units.

Two recent events involving the ordinance have led business leaders and city officials to call for a review.

In October, the City Council excused philanthropist Roxanne Quimby from having to pay more than $400,000 into the replacement housing fund for removing rental units from a Congress Street building she intends to turn into artist studios. Councilors voted 6-3 in favor of giving Quimby, who founded Burt's Bees, a "project of special merit" exemption.

At the same time, at the other end of Congress Street, Alec Altman was being ordered by the city to demolish the dilapidated building he owns at the corner of Congress and Washington Avenue. While Altman had proposed a few redevelopment schemes for the property, each ran into the housing replacement ordinance.

City staff determined Altman's building had at one time included three apartment units. Altman, his attorney and previous owners of the property argued the building hadn't had apartments in more than 50 years. But the city contends that because the change of use was never officially granted, Altman would have to pay the $150,000 or replace the housing.

"The lot at Congress and Washington is a poster child for changing the ordinance," Peter Merrill, of the Maine State Housing Authority, said. Merrill spoke at a recent Portland Community Chamber event on the topic.

"There should be a clear date for qualification," he said. "The city shouldn't go and try finding out what happened in the '40s and '50s."

Merrill also said the special merit clause is too ambiguous. "The City Council knows it when it sees it," he said, "and then the rest of us know."

City Councilor John Anton, who is the chairman of the Housing Committee this year, said Merrill's concerns are a couple of the reasons his committee will start reviewing the ordinance Jan. 5 in a workshop meeting.

Dana Totman, head of the affordable housing group Avesta, was also a part of the chamber panel. He said the ordinance is important because there is a mismatch between Portland's current housing stock and the needs of renters. He said current units are too big, too expensive and difficult to heat.

"I think this particular ordinance is needed," Totman said.

The Housing Committee meets Jan. 5 at 5 p.m. in Room 209 at City Hall.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net