Portland City Council rejects rules to increase affordable housing

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PORTLAND — Large-scale residential developers will not be required to increase the number of units set aside as workforce housing, but the ordinance governing those set-asides will remain on the books.

Those were among the council decisions made at Monday’s City Hall meeting, which lasted more than five hours. Councilors also approved expanding the boundaries and increasing the supplemental tax assessment for the Portland Downtown District.

Councilors also put more teeth into the ordinance covering snow removal from sidewalks, including increased fines for failure to comply. The changes also allow the city to designate property owners as repeat offenders, clear the sidewalks and then bill the owners for the work.

The revisions to housing rules and the inclusionary zoning requirements have been discussed since last November, with competing recommendations coming from the council Housing Committee and the Planning Board ahead of Monday’s votes.

Councilor Brian Batson, a member of the Housing Committee, offered an amendment to increase the number of set-asides from 10 percent to 18 percent in developments with 10 or more units. Both the committee and Planning Board were opposed to any increase.

Batson said the increase would close “the gap on socioeconomic diversity in Portland.”

He was supported by Mayor Ethan Strimling, who wanted to double the number of set-asides. Strimling said nearly three-quarters of about 500 municipalities with inclusionary zoning rules required at least 15 percent of units to be set aside.

Inclusionary zoning rules were enacted in 2015 with a six-year window. City Planning Director Jeff Levine said two units have been built, a third is under construction, and there is the potential for a total 31 units being set aside.

Developers can also pay $100,000 per unit in lieu of the set-asides, which would be marketed to people earning 100 percent to 120 percent of the area median income. A council memo shows the anticipated revenue from those fees is $1.26 million; it would go to the city’s Housing Trust Fund.

A 30-minute public hearing drew comments from both sides. Carolyn Silvius of Homeless Voices for Justice said the increase was needed because of the city’s housing shortage. She also urged councilors to eliminate the payment in lieu of set-asides.

Developer Ethan Boxer-Macomber said the industry is already crunched by increased property and construction costs, making the new requirement onerous.

“I can tell you right now these projects are inherently difficult to do,” he said, adding the list of approved construction affected by inclusionary zoning is notable because of the projects that have been delayed.

Councilors also rejected Strimling’s amendment to reduce the income standards to 80 percent to 100 percent of the area median income. Councilor Kim Cook offered a motion to restore the six-year sunset clause stricken from the revisions, but was the sole supporter of her amendment.

Portland Downtown

The boundaries of Portland Downtown, the business improvement district established in 1992, will expand, but will not include sections of Park and Pleasant streets that are primarily residential.

With the expansion comes the first increase in supplemental property taxes paid by property owners in the district, from 92 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to $1.03.

In all, the increased tax rate and boundaries are expected to generate more than $950,000 in revenue the city will turn back over to Portland Downtown for its fiscal year 2019 operations.

Members of the public spoke for more than 30 minutes in support and opposition to the expansion, which will also include more complete snow removal and trash cleanup. The measure would also increase the proportion of residential property owners to 44 percent, up from about 40 percent.

Park Street resident Karen Foster supported the amendment by Councilor Justin Costa to remove her street.

“It is simply a matter of not expanding into areas where it does not fit,” she said.

Portland Downtown Executive Director Casey Gilbert said the new boundaries were proposed with clarity in mind.

“We tried to be very egalitarian … and data-driven,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.