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PORTLAND — While a $7 million housing bond proposal is no closer to a full City Council review, councilors on March 7 got a fuller picture of what it may take to build more affordable housing.
A two-hour joint meeting with the Finance and Economic Development committees brought Mayor Ethan Strimling and six of eight councilors to the table to assess how the city might better fund its Housing Trust Fund.
Strimling has proposed the bond as a rolling annual fund, with about $1.5 million available each year to help developers get some footing in the process of building affordable and workforce housing in the city.
On Monday, he said his ultimate goal is to have the fund capitalized with $10 million over the next five years to build 1,000 new units.
If $1 million more of proceeds from the sale of land to WEX, revenue from new hotel linkage fees, or added revenue from inclusionary zoning requirements get the fund balance to $10 million, Strimling said he would advocate for a smaller bond.
A bond of more than $4.5 million would require a referendum, according to city bond counsel Jim Saffia.
How to fund projects and what it takes to get them started were the primary points discussed when the committees met March 7, with public comment from developer Nathan Szanton and Avesta Housing Development Officer Tyler Norod telling counselors land costs in the city are the biggest impediment to development.
“I think it is really going to be hard to find the next projects,” Norod said, adding the likely scale for development will be 45-75 units.
Szanton, who built Walker Terrace on Congress Street and redeveloped the former Huse School in Bath, acknowledged his interest in building affordable housing, while saying a strong trust fund balance is integral to development because it shows local commitment.
“There needs to be enough money in Portland to get over that hump of land being extremely expensive,” he said.
Help with land acquisition can also lower the per-unit cost of housing to put it on par with other communities competing for Maine State Housing Authority funding, Szanton added.
Councilor Jill Duson, who also leads the council Housing Committee, said she does not favor a bond.
Her target for annual funding is $500,000, but she would also like to see councilors develop annual housing goals.
“I think we can get to … the goal without adding to the indebtedness of the city,” she said.
With a present balance of $1.27 million, the Housing Trust Fund has reached an unprecedented level, even with $500,000 set aside for contingencies. Last year, $925,000 was awarded to fund work on the Portland Housing Authority’s Front Street complex and $300,000 went to Avesta for its senior housing development at 977 Brighton Ave.
The flush times were a rarity in the fund history, and though it was bolstered with $277,500 in inclusionary zoning payments this year from developers of condominium project at 20 Thames St., consistent revenue streams are sought by councilors.
The hotel linkage fee enacted last month adds a one-time, $3,800-per-room fee to new hotel, motel and inn projects of at least 11 rooms, and is projected to add $640,000 to the fund annually.
Duson noted the city also has annual funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to allocate to projects with lower income guidelines.
But Strimling said the flexibility of the Housing Trust Fund makes it an important tool. Last year, the city distributed almost $1.3 million in federal money to four development projects.
Portland City Hall, 389 Congress St.