Portland Housing Authority at 75: ‘We house people in need, we always have’

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PORTLAND — After years of visiting friends who live in Sagamore Village, Gillian Poisson is proud to call the city’s oldest public housing community home.

“I love it because it is a little melting pot in itself,” Poisson said Monday.

The “melting pot” and its history will be celebrated Friday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m., as the Portland Housing Authority turns 75. Expected guests and speakers include U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and Mayor Ethan Strimling.

“We house people in need, we always have,” PHA Director Mark Adelson said Sept. 19. “The fundamental benefit is to provide stability and give people an opportunity for success.”

Originally built to house people who worked in South Portland’s World War II shipyards, Sagamore Village at 22 Popham St. is part of a network of more than 1,200 housing units throughout the city for low-income families, senior citizens and people with disabilities.

PHA also administers more than 1,800 housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development; Adelson said the agency works with 600 landlords.

“We are involved with close to 6,500 residents of greater Portland, involved with all stages of housing from homelessness to home ownership,” he said.

The PHA largely relies on government grants and subsidies – more than $20 million in fiscal year 2017, compared to $6 million in rents and other income. The agency is overseen by a seven-member board of directors.

Sagamore Village, which now offers 179 family apartments and 19 apartments for senior or disabled residents, came first, part of a network of 3,000 housing units for wartime workers built in the greater Portland area.

To this day, it offers a well-developed sense of home, Poisson said.

“Any day of the week, you see kids riding up and down the street and going into yards to play,” she said. Her daughter, Madison Smith, just began kindergarten, and Poisson said she has always been glad Madison had a yard to play in.

Poisson is part of the development council, providing outreach to residents through things like cooking classes.

“There is all kinds of culture, you can learn about and try their foods,” she said.

Development of public housing was a tenuous process at first. Housing for workers was scarce in the World War II years. In 1943, a law passed by the state Legislature allowed the creation of the PHA. It took over Sagamore Village soon after the development was completed.

Housing shortages continued after the war, and local control did not happen until the Legislature in 1949 allowed municipalities to set up housing authorities.

Portland councilors still rejected the concept for a year, until a report by former Planning Board Chairman Neal Allen concluding public housing would be a key to eliminating urban blight.

In 1953, the PHA again took over Sagamore Village. In 1959, it began planning public housing as a part of redeveloping Bayside. Two years later, voters approved construction of 70 housing units in what would become Kennedy Park.

Five years after that, the agency began planning for Franklin Towers, which became northern New England’s first high-rise public housing development.

Allen’s conclusion that public housing could remedy urban blight played out in the early 1970s, when the PHA opened residences on Front Street in East Deering after the city widened Franklin Street through peninsula neighborhoods and tore down more than 200 housing units.

Demand for public housing has not subsided. In July, the PHA had a waiting list of more than 1,100.

Most recently, the agency opened Bayside Anchor on East Oxford Street in 2017, providing 36 units of low-income housing. The agency is also planning a 55-unit building at nearby 58 Boyd St.

The PHA will next tear down 50 units at Front Street while adding 60 more at the development.

Developing low-income housing often requires funding from multiple sources. To rebuild and expand Front Street, the PHA will rely on more then $1.4 million in funding from the city, including $925,000 from the Housing Trust Fund.

PHA will also seek funding from the Maine State Housing Authority in the form of low-income tax credits passed on from the IRS.

Poisson said she was on a waiting list for a couple of years before getting a place in Sagamore Village.

“I was born and raised in Portland, this is where I want to be,” she said.

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

Gillian Poisson and her daughter, Madison Smith, have lived in Sagamore Village, Portland Housing Authority’s first community, for several years. “I love it because it is a little melting pot in itself,” Poisson said Sept. 24.

An aerial view of Sagamore Village, completed in 1943 to house war industry workers. Brighton Avenue is seen in the lower half of the photo. The PHA will celebrate its 75th anniversary there on Sept. 28.

PHA Director Mark Adelson reviews 75 years of history Sept. 19 at the agency.

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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.