‘We’re becoming family’: Event celebrates growing Stonecrest community

It was a perfect fall day last Friday to celebrate the opening of 25 new apartments for seniors and the disabled in Standish. While the apartments at Stonecrest II were completed in March, we like to hold off on a celebration until they are full or nearly full, so the residents can be part of the event as well.

This grand opening was much different than other grand openings we’ve had in the past. First, we didn’t even call it a grand opening, but rather a Harvest Luncheon and Community Celebration. We asked residents of Stonecrest I and Stonecrest II to invite their families and to provide their feedback on what kind of event they wanted to have. We invited local officials like Sen. Gary Plummer and Town Councilor Lynn Olson to join us and get to know the residents. We deepened our connection to the Standish community by inviting the Bonny Eagle High School Jazz Combo and Select Chorus to perform.

We didn’t want the focus of this event to be on Avesta or the development of the project, but rather the residents and their community. One of the residents, Norman, served as the MC and kept everyone smiling with his jokes and heartfelt words about his community. Two of his neighbors stood up to talk about why living at Stonecrest was important to them. Other residents shared their stories in writing, describing what the Stonecrest community means to them on cards that were displayed at the event.

“Stonecrest gave me a home that is safe and clean, and friends that make me feel good every day,” said one resident. “And a real sense of community, to share our stories, our ups and downs.”

“After five years without a home of my own, Stonecrest has given me a roof over my head that I can call ‘home,’” wrote another resident. “I really want to thank everyone for the friendships we’re developing!”

All these stories had common themes: a sense of safety, support from the community, a willingness to help each other. I can attest to the residents’ willingness to help, as I was surprised and delighted when several of them came out to help set up the tables and decorations for the event! They told me they were happy to do it, and I could see that they truly were. After the event, they literally opened their homes to us, offering tours of their apartments to visitors and guests who wanted to take a peek.

I’m very appreciative to the residents for their help and their hospitality. And I’d like to offer a special thanks to Norman for serving as the event’s host and for sharing what the Stonecrest community means to him. “To face aging with a community of caring adults gives great comfort to us,” he told the crowd. “The greatest meaning for us is the friends we have made. We’re becoming ‘family’ and that’s a real good feeling.”

Read more about the event and watch video at the Bangor Daily News website.

And read about the community garden at Stonecrest here.


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Community focus at Oak Street Lofts show for First Friday Art Walk

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means the art gallery at Oak Street Lofts in Portland is open to the public tonight for First Friday Art Walk. This month, we’re featuring the artwork made by children at several of our properties, including Pearl Place I and II in Portland and North Street in Westbrook.

We held several art-making events at the properties, where we asked children to create art on the theme of what community means to them. The children made collages, paintings and drawings depicting some familiar community landmarks, like Deering Oaks Park and Reiche Community School, as well as their families, friends and neighborhoods.

The children’s work is juxtaposed with art made by residents of the Marshwood Center, a skilled nursing facility in Lewiston. Their work debuted last month, and several of the artists came to Portland for the opening on June 7. Their excitement at seeing their work hanging in a gallery was evident as they studied the walls of framed paintings, and their family members were there to share in the excitement as well.

The show, entitled “Late Works,” is the result of a unique partnership between the center and Oak Street Lofts. Since April, the Marshwood Center has been holding weekly painting classes run by Jeannine, the center’s housekeeper and a lifelong painter. Angela Mastrella, recreation director at the Marshwood Center, said the classes have had a positive impact on residents and provided a creative outlet for those who thought their painting days were behind them. You can read more about the program in the Sun Journal.

Michelle, a resident at Oak Street Lofts, happened to see the artwork on display in the center when she was there visiting her grandmother. She approached the center about a gallery showing and served as curator. Michelle joined the residents at the opening in June, lifting a glass of sparkling cider to toast to their accomplishments.

Some of the work made by the Marshwood residents will be on display tonight as well, so if you missed it last month, you still have a chance to see it.

photo (10)Michelle, herself a potter, has more than one connection to tonight’s show. She also volunteered her time with the children to help them produce their artwork.

Including an art gallery in Oak Street Lofts was a first for Avesta. Since the building opened in January 2012, about 30 artists have shown their work there. The gallery space is booked through November, and some months in 2014 are also reserved.

We’ve been happy to see the residents so excited to use the gallery, and we’re pleased to see such interesting collaborations evolve. These kinds of connections are what communities are built on — and as the children’s artwork demonstrates, community is pretty powerful, no matter how you interpret it.

Stop by 72 Oak Street from 5-8 p.m. tonight to see the show.


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Our Pearl Place II Grand Opening: A recap

On Monday, under skies that threatened rain but never followed through, we celebrated the grand opening of one of our newest properties, Pearl Place II in Portland. If you missed my previous post about our 10-year history of developing housing on Pearl Street, you can read it here.

Despite the clouds and the chill, the event was a great success. We saw lots of our partners, friends, colleagues, advocates, employees and residents. We heard from Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who talked about the success of the city’s efforts in partnership with Preble Street to find housing for homeless individuals; Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who remarked on the sheer amount of construction happening in Portland, a commuting hassle but a very promising sign of better times in the city; MaineHousing Director John Gallagher, who reminded us all of the complex partnerships that have to happen in order for housing projects like Pearl Place II to come to fruition; and Isaac Bujambi, a new American and new Pearl Place II resident, who shared his heartwrenching story of fleeing his home under persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions in a refugee camp. We’re happy — and he’s happy — that he and his wife and four children are able to live in a safe, secure, affordable home.

We also gave our annual Mike Yandell Award to John Ryan, president of Wright-Ryan Construction, who in turn recognized his team of employees. Wright-Ryan has partnered with Avesta on several projects, and the mission of affordable housing is as important to John as it is to us. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to live in a space they can be proud of, and that’s the kind of spaces we look to build,” he said at Monday’s event.

Pearl Place II’s grand opening marked our fifth grand opening in the last year. We have three other projects in construction, and three additional ones about to start construction. These 11 developments in seven Maine communities represent $74 million in economic impact. But more importantly, these 11 developments provide homes to 362 Maine families like Isaac’s. We think that’s worth celebrating.

See more photos of the event on our Facebook page.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Pearl Place II continues our legacy of affordable green building

We’ve got something of a reputation for our green building. It was nearly 10 years ago that we developed our green design standards, recognizing that an efficient building is one that lasts longer, costs less over the long term, and provides a healthier living environment.

We built the first affordable housing development in the state to receive LEED certification, and we also built the first affordable, multifamily property to receive LEED Platinum certification.

We’ve received national recognition for our energy-efficiency – in 2008, we received the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED For Homes Award for Pearl Place I (Multifamily category); in 2012 we received the LEED for Homes Award for Oak Street Lofts (Outstanding Affordable Developer category); and just last month Oak Street Lofts won the Charles L. Edson Tax Credit Excellence Award in Green Housing.

Now we’ve added another green building to our mix: Pearl Place II, a 54-apartment community in Portland completed in January. Like Pearl Place I, phase II is designed to qualify for LEED certification in the LEED for Homes program. Energy models estimate that Pearl Place II is 25% more efficient than standard buildings with similar characteristics.

The building envelope is highly insulated, and fresh air is supplied by an efficient energy recovery ventilation system. The building’s boilers achieve 92% efficiency, compared with standards boilers that are 80% efficient. We used a construction technique called compartmentalization so that each apartment is self-contained, minimizing air flow between the apartments. This improves indoor air quality and ensures the HVAC system is operating at optimal efficiency in each apartment. (An added bonus: It also reduces the travel of sounds and smells between apartments.)

A series of solar panels on the roof heat approximately 65% of the domestic hot water used in the building. And a landscaped rain garden next to the building helps reduce stormwater runoff. We also used as many local and green-certified materials as we could, installed high-efficiency fixtures and appliances, used low or no-VOC paints and adhesives, and diverted 85% of construction waste from landfills and incinerators.

While we like receiving awards for our green buildings, that’s not why we build them that way. We do it to ensure the long life of these properties, reduce operating costs and create a safer, healthier place to live for our residents. We’re happy to add Pearl Place II to our growing list of energy-efficient developments.

We’re celebrating the grand opening of Pearl Place II on Monday! Won’t you join us?

To read more about LEED For Homes and the U.S. Green Building Council, visit their website.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Pearl Place II: Returning Bayside to its residential roots

We’re really excited to celebrate the grand opening of Pearl Place II on June 10. We’re not just marking the opening of new, affordable apartments in Portland – we’re also celebrating the culmination of a nearly decade-long effort to participate in the revitalization of the Bayside neighborhood.

It was in August 2004 when we announced our plans to build in phases 100 housing units. And while our conceptual plans and timelines were adapted over the years, our goal did not: Spur the growth of the Bayside neighborhood by building new housing units.

A 2000 study entitled “A New Vision for Bayside” called for a return to the neighborhood’s residential roots with the creation of 500 housing units. In 2004, Ronald Spinella, then-chairman of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, told the Portland Press Herald that “it would be a real boon to Bayside to have more people living here again.”

In late 2007, on the corner of Oxford and Pearl streets, we opened Pearl Place I, an energy-efficient building with 60 apartments. The building filled more quickly than anticipated, and many of the new residents were immigrants and refugees. The location was ideal: 43% of the residents could walk to work, and the average resident commute shrunk from nearly 10 miles to less than 3.

Now, we’ve added another 54 apartments with Pearl Place II. Many of the residents are immigrants and refugees. Many are working families. Some are participants in the STRIVE U program, which provides post-secondary education and training to young adults with developmental disabilities. Some were formerly homeless and in desperate need of a safe, affordable place to live.

Over the last decade, the Bayside neighborhood has experienced a renaissance, thanks to concerted city efforts and $140 million of private investment. Our residents now have even more they can walk to, like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Avesta also moved its office to the Bayside neighborhood in 2002 with the purchase of 307 Cumberland Avenue. And while our Pearl Street plans are complete, our investment in the Bayside neighborhood is far from over.

We’ve enjoyed being a part of the changing landscape of the Bayside neighborhood over the last 10 years, and we’re excited to see what the next 10 will bring.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

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

How housing and education go hand-in-hand

AmeriCorps Week

In honor of AmeriCorps Week, I’m sharing the words of Kemper Tell, a State and National AmeriCorps member who’s been working with Avesta since September to launch a number of programs for children in several of our properties, with a focus on children of immigrant families. As Kemper explains, education is a vital component of creating a safe, stable home.

Collaboration to Meet Needs

By Kemper Tell

Kemper is serving with Goodwill’s Multilingual Leadership Corps, an AmeriCorps program funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service through the Maine Commission for Community Service. A version of this blog post originally appeared on the Volunteer Maine blog, From the Field.

The need for safe and quality housing is a key to academic success for all children. This is especially true for new immigrants to the United States who face more barriers in becoming productive in society. Some barriers are learning a new language, facing a new culture, and activities as simple as knowing how to shop in a grocery store. As a State and National AmeriCorps member, I am serving with the affordable housing nonprofit Avesta Housing in Portland that is addressing both of these needs by combining quality housing and academic resources.

At Avesta, I am creating and executing an after-school program at several properties throughout Portland and Westbrook. I am providing homework assistance and constructive play for residents, many of whom are immigrants who came to the United States because of various conflicts around the world.

 

The accessibility of having academic assistance located where students live allows for many children to participate in outside-of-school-time activities they would not be able to access if they were located elsewhere. It also creates a greater sense of community for the residents when they have a common meeting space every week where they know they can get homework help and play.

As humans, we all require basic needs to be met in order to be successful, and one is shelter. Avesta Housing is working to meet that need, and in partnership with AmeriCorps, working to create a successful academic environment for its residents.

Kemper has other programs in the works, including an art program and a summer camp program focused on arts and sciences. We’re excited to have her as part of our team!

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

 

Seniors enjoy a chance to eat and socialize at Community Cafe

The residents of Park Street School, a community for seniors in Kennebunk, admit to being a social bunch. They hold daily card games in the building’s large community space and convene regular cribbage games.

Starting in January, Park Street School also began hosting monthly Community Cafes, a program of Southern Maine Agency on Aging that provides people ages 60 and over a regular chance to meet, talk and enjoy a healthy lunch. The program is offered in Kennebunk the first Friday of every month and is open to all seniors in the area.

In February, about 35 people filled the tables decorated for Valentine’s Day to enjoy a meal of meatloaf, vegetables, rolls and Boston cream pie. Guests chatted about their families, books they’ve read and their favorite restaurants in Kennebunk. Guests that day included a woman who worked as a secretary at the school for seven years and was excited to be back in the building. Park Street School resident Joan entertained the group with songs by Patsy Cline and Neil Diamond.

Ann MacAusland, an assessor specialist for SMAA, runs the program but relies on the help of volunteer Park Street School residents like Barbara, herself a recipient of SMAA’s Meal on Wheels program. “I couldn’t help in the kitchen or set up” because she uses a wheelchair, she said, “but I could be at the door helping people fill out paperwork.” Barbara and neighbor Jackie signed up new cafe-goers, handed out raffle tickets and took the $5 donation from each attendee.

Before moving to Park Street School last fall, Barbara was living with her son in Arundel. “Since I’ve moved in here, I’ve met so many beautiful people,” she said.

And the food? “Oh gosh, it’s delicious.”

Avesta staff also help set up for the event and serve food. “It’s a good event,” said Resident Service Coordinator Angie Littlefield. “People seem to really enjoy it.”

The next cafe happens Friday, March 1, and rumor has it the menu is shrimp scampi. Contact SMAA at 1-800-400-6325 for more information.

Our Unity Gardens community in Windham also hosts meals for seniors on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with catered meals the second Thursday of the month.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Free tax preparation services for families who need them

As we’ve done in the past, Avesta is spreading the word about free tax preparation services available for households who need them. Families are fortunate that there are so many ways to get free tax help instead of paying someone to file your taxes, or, worse, getting a refund anticipation loan that carries excessive fees and ridiculous interest.money jar

We’re partnering with Gorham Savings Bank and the United Way to sponsor a week of free tax preparation events beginning today. IRS-certified tax preparers will be on hand to help you prepare and file your taxes, check your credit report, and apply for Maine’s property tax and rent refund programs. The events are February 26-28 from 5-8 p.m. and Saturday, March 2, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., happening at United Way’s office at 1 Canal Plaza, third floor. They’re available to people who made less than $51,000 in 2012.

If you can’t make it to an event, you can stop by our new HomeOwnership Center any time during tax season. Contact me to find out more or make an appointment. The United Way is also open to help, so give them a call at 874-1000.

If you’d rather take care of your taxes from your living room, and you made less than $57,000 in 2012, you can go to myfreetaxes.com/Maine and file both their state and federal taxes for free. The online software is easy to use and features a toll-free number to call if you have questions.

Taking advantage of these free services will save you up to $200 in fees you’d pay elsewhere for tax preparation, and we’ll help you apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which could give you up to $5,891.

Visit cashgp.org for more information.

And check out this space in a couple weeks for smart ways to spend your tax refund. Hint: playing the slots at Oxford Casino is not on the list.

By David Stolt, Home Ownership Services Manager

Shining a light on affordable housing

A welcome mat

Welcome to The Porch Light, Avesta Housing’s blog. We hope to use this blog as a platform to share information about our work, the industry we work in and the people we serve.

Avesta has been around for more than 40 years and seen lots of change in affordable housing. In the 1970s, we were developing garden-style housing on acres of land in pastoral settings. These days, we’re rehabbing historic school buildings and turning empty urban lots into energy-efficient housing. This progression is evident as you peruse our wall of photos in our Portland office.

This shift reflects changing Maine’s demographic and their needs. More people are moving to urban areas, where they can access public transportation, public services and other amenities. Living where the jobs are is crucial for households that are seeing expenses like gas and food eat up a greater chunk of their monthly budgets.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the need for what we provide. In fact, the need is greater than ever. In Maine, the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair-market rent is $15.10, but the mean hourly wage among renters is just $9.82. That means thousands of Maine households are struggling to find affordable housing or are paying more than 50% of their income on housing. Our waiting list for affordable apartments is 2,200 people long, but in 2013 we anticipate having just 400 openings.

Meanwhile, budget uncertainties at both the state and national level imperil the programs and services that help low-income people find safe, affordable places to live.

As the economic and political landscapes change, we wanted to find new ways to talk about what we do and, more importantly, why we do it. This blog is one of those ways.

Why The Porch Light?

The name to us evokes that warm, safe feeling of home – a porch light left on to greet you and to welcome your neighbors. It’s a simple comfort, but one that’s impossible to take for granted if you’ve ever wondered where you might sleep that night. We’ll use this space to shine a light (it’s also a metaphor!) on the importance of housing security and the people impacted by it.

To make sure you don’t miss anything, subscribe to updates either via your email or an RSS reader on the right. And also check us out on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager