PORTLAND — Supply is increasing, but a city report shows affordable housing remains elusive.
The report reviewed by the City Council Housing Committee Oct. 26, prepared by the city Planning and Urban Development Department’s Housing and Community Development division, considered data from city, state and national sources to outline the current status of city housing.
Councilor Jill Duson, who leads the committee that also includes Councilors David Brenerman and Brian Batson, said more public comment on the report will be heard at the committee’s Nov. 8 meeting in City Hall.
“This is a chance to walk through it,” Duson said as councilors heard from Planning Administrative Officer James Dealaman, Housing Divison Director Mary Davis and Housing Program Manager Victoria Volent.
The report concluded 33 percent of homeowners and almost 50 percent of renters spend more than 30 percent of their gross monthly incomes on rent, mortgage payments, utility bills and taxes.
Thirty percent is the threshold used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to define affordable housing. While the report cited three different sources for average rents in the city, the averages all showed rents would be affordable to people earning at least $43,000 annually, while 52 percent of city renters earn $35,000 or less.
Listed averages for two-bedroom apartments from the Maine State Housing Authority and annual data collected by Southern Maine Landlord Association President Brit Vitalius showed a rent range from $1,052 listed by MSHA to at least $1,250 by Vitalius.
Data from the Zillow Real Estate network was also used, showing average rents in neighborhoods like the East End now at more than $2,200, but the amounts were not broken down into the number of bedrooms.
The family home ownership rate in Portland is 43 percent, with 57 percent of family households renting more than 18,000 units.
Home ownership in the city is also a costly proposition for many, with the median value of city homes now at $262,000. However, MSHA data showing a city median income of $43,000 would mean homeowners at that level would meet the 30 percent threshold for affordability in a home valued at $143,000.
The rental data and concept of affordability were questioned by councilors as Brenerman and Batson noted tenants splitting rental costs should be factored more fully into the data.
“I don’t think we are downplaying the fact that housing is not affordable to a lot of people,” Brenerman said.
In the limited public comment following the presentation, building owners Jonathan Culley and Tom Watson said the rental averages were unreliable, especially the Zillow data.
The annual rental registrations at the city Housing Safety Office do not require annual rents to be listed, although that could change if Question 1, the “Fair Rent” referendum, is approved by voters Nov. 7. Absent that, Culley and Watson both said they would be amenable to providing data on rents to help city officials get a better sense of housing costs.
Affordable housing has also been made more difficult by poverty, according to the report.
Based on 2015 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 20 percent of city residents are living below the poverty line, with more than 25 percent of city children under age-18 and 12.5 percent of the people over age-65 living in poverty.
The report also noted the city’s housing stock is aging, even as new developments have or will open this year. More than 16,000 of the city’s 33,000 total housing units were built before 1940, and more than 72 percent of all units were built before 1970.
The city has spent more than $14 million in local and federal money to build almost 800 housing units affordable to people earning 60 percent or less of the area median income, and the Housing Committee will consider a proposal from Mayor Ethan Strimling to double the number of units set aside in the city’s inclusionary zoning law from one per every 10. Councilors may also consider reducing the area mean income levels for the set aside units.
Under the inclusionary zoning, five developers have elected to pay a fee in lieu of setting aside units, which will bring $1.26 million to the city Housing Trust Fund once the developments receive occupancy permits.