By James McCarthy
Oct. 26, 2012
The 40-year history of Avesta Housing's efforts to create affordable housing in southern Maine is neatly laid out in several rows of framed photographs hanging in the front lobby of the nonprofit's headquarters in Portland.
They start with single-family housing projects funded in the 1970s and '80s, when readily available federal money encouraged developments in rural areas where land was cheap and available but often far removed from jobs, grocery stores, doctor's offices and other public services. By contrast, the most recent projects in Avesta's $130 million housing portfolio — the $6 million Emery School conversion in Biddeford and the $7.8 million renovation of Park Street School in Kennebunk — represent a sea change in the agency's thinking about affordable housing.
The Portland-based agency, which is one of the largest nonprofit developers of affordable housing in New England, is marketing the 24 Emery School apartments for people 55 and older, with monthly rents from $637 to $918. Park Street's 30 apartments will house people 62 and older or who are handicapped, with rents from $765 to $918. Both involved extensive renovations of historic school buildings with solid brick facades, high ceilings, tall windows and original classroom chalkboards that have been incorporated into the décor of completed apartments.
In Maine, where shrinking enrollment and an aging population mean more schools are becoming empty at a time when many older residents are looking to downsize and move into smaller living quarters, shuttered schools have emerged as prime candidates for senior housing. At least eight historic schools in the last five years have been converted, or are in various stages of completion.