Exploring new ways to build affordable apartments in Maine

Last month, Deutsche Bank and Enterprise Community Partners Inc. announced the four finalists in their national competition aimed at finding innovative ways to lower the cost of affordable housing. Bayside Anchor, a proposed multi-family housing development in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, was selected as one of these finalists.

Avesta is pleased to serve as the development consultant with a stellar team that also includes Portland Housing Authority as the developer, Wright-Ryan Construction, Kaplan Thompson Architects, John Anton Consulting and the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. These partners are leaders in the construction, sustainable design and affordable housing development fields. We are all energized by the idea of developing a cost-efficient affordable rental prototype in a downtown Portland neighborhood recovering from the devastation of urban renewal.

With Bayside Anchor, we hope to prove that first costs of development can be lowered without sacrificing investments that result in lower long-term costs throughout the life of a building. We think we can show that efficient, smart design doesn’t have to mean higher costs – and can actually generate some real savings over the life of a building.

Bayside Anchor will use a number of strategies to achieve lower cost, including using more prefabrication to lower construction costs, which means shorter time frames and a more efficient use of labor. Also proposed is seeking an elimination of off-street parking currently required under the city of Portland’s zoning. Structured parking is expensive in urban infill developments, and there are just better ways to use precious downtown space. We reduced parking spaces at Oak Street Lofts, and the response to that project has been remarkable, so we know it can be done successfully.

The team will also use a design/build approach for Bayside Anchor instead of the typical design/bid/build process. This will reduce fees and speed up construction time frames, ultimately resulting in much lower cost.

We envision the Bayside Anchor development serving as a laboratory for transforming the way in which affordable apartments are designed, built and analyzed in Maine. It’s an important endeavor, as Maine may well be ground zero for the national debate regarding the cost of creating new affordable housing. In 2011, development costs in excess of $300,000 per unit for an affordable multi-family development in Portland sparked conflict between the Director of MaineHousing and the agency’s Board. In the aftermath of this conflict, the Director resigned and MaineHousing radically rewrote its criteria to emphasize lowest development cost.

This debate unintentionally pitted against each other the equally laudable goals of lowering development cost and creating sustainable building strategies and urban infill projects.

Fortunately for Maine’s affordable housing community, the often-contentious development cost debate is behind us. New leadership at MaineHousing has signaled a willingness to engage thoughtfully in discussions about policy issues on lowering development costs, investing in sustainable buildings and restoring the fabric of communities with urban infill.

The time is ripe to move beyond conversations about cost and to explore some real solutions. Whether or not Bayside Anchor wins the national competition in June, this collaborative team has pushed the envelope and furthered the conversation around cost containment, and it’s a conversation we plan to continue.

By Debora Keller, Director of Programs