The market will not simply act on its own to provide enough rental units for residents at or below the median income.
January 15, 2016
By Dana Totman
Thank you to the Portland Press Herald for the recent “Welcome to Portland – No Vacancy” series. Clearly there’s an affordability crisis in Portland and many other popular East Coast cities. The series did an excellent job of demonstrating how middle-income households are struggling to find or afford rental housing in Portland. The rapidly escalating rental rates were accurately documented throughout the six-part series.
Some have speculated that this is a simple market dynamic and eventually prices will fall back in line. That may be true for the higher-priced apartments and for middle-income households. However, we simply cannot lose sight of just how low incomes are for Portland residents. According to the Maine State Housing Authority, the median income of Portland’s homeowners was $44,332 in 2014, the third lowest of Cumberland County communities, with only Frye Island and Bridgton lower.
The median income of Portland’s rental households was $30,601 in 2014, which was 14 percent lower than it was in 2010 and 10 percent lower than the Cumberland County average.
Using the widely agreed-upon rule that households should not pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, we need median rents to be $765 to be affordable to median-income rental households in Portland. Portland’s median rent in 2014 was $1,310, and arguably much higher today.
Here at Avesta Housing, we had 3,273 housing requests in 2015 from households with a median income of $14,400. Because of limited supply and few turnovers, we were able to move only 440 into housing, so the rest simply wait.
The market is not going to adjust and start creating apartments at $765 per month or less unless building supplies are suddenly given away or construction workers start working for free – both unrealistic scenarios. It will take some form of public intervention to ensure housing affordability for the thousands of Portland households that have low incomes. It will take some bold action by our federal, state, and Portland governments.
The city of Portland can help by contributing or selling at a discount some publicly owned property like old schools, Barron Center land and Bayside public works land to the affordable housing cause. Portland can continue its creative zoning density improvements. Also, because protecting our existing rental housing stock is critically important, apartment-to-condominium conversion fees should be increased and dedicated to affordable housing, and Airbnb units should be registered, with the accompanying fee income going toward the creation of affordable homes.
The state of Maine can help by fully funding the Housing Opportunities for Maine Fund and cease robbing that fund to pay for non-housing expenditures. The immediate sale of the senior housing bond recently approved by nearly 70 percent of Maine voters will fund more developments for our deserving seniors.
Our federal government can help by restoring 60,000 (500 in Maine) housing vouchers that were lost to sequestration in 2013. Also, Portland’s share of the federal HOME (HOME Investment Partnership Program) block grant should be restored to its 2010 level of $1.3 million rather than the 2015 level of $820,832.
It is also long overdue for our federal government to examine the practice of allowing very high-income owners of very expensive homes (and second homes) with mortgages over $500,000 to deduct their excessive mortgage interest and avoid paying their fair share of income taxes.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison’s bill, the Common Sense Housing Investment Act of 2015 (H.R. 1662), would increase affordable housing revenues by about $20 billion per year by capping mortgage interest deductibility at $500,000. Maine would likely see about $100 million per year if Ellison’s bill becomes law, and it is worth noting that less than 1 percent of the mortgages originated in Maine in recent years are over $500,000. An increase of $100 million per year in affordable-housing revenues could essentially solve our entire state’s rental and homeless challenges.
These will not be easy policy discussions in Portland, Augusta or Washington, but the market simply will not react adequately on its own to provide the affordable homes that we all need. The Portland Press Herald painted a clear picture of the rental housing crisis in Portland and – left unaddressed – this crisis will be problematic for our residents and for the economy.
We hope policymakers acknowledge how low area incomes really are in relation to the cost of housing, agree that all residents deserve a safe, affordable roof over their heads and implement the necessary remedies.