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Residents’ collections are inspiration for Maine College of Art students

Update: The artwork created through this partnership will be featured as part of Portland’s First Friday Art Walk on Feb. 7 at Oak Street Lofts! Bayside East residents will be at Oak Street Lofts to share the special objects that inspired the artwork created by the students. We hope to see you at 72 Oak Street from 5-8 p.m.!


Behind each piece of artwork hanging in the community room at Bayside East is a story. There’s the story of the treasures brought home by a young man stationed overseas, or the story of a cultural tradition transplanted in a new community. And there’s the simple story of preserving a community’s history through newspaper clippings.

Looking at the 11 prints on the walls, the stories might not be apparent. But for the residents of the Portland senior community, the artwork represents memories of cherished items collected over the years, as seen through the eyes of local art students.

A Bayside East resident shows Maine College of Art students an item he’s collected

From September to December, a class of Maine College of Art students spent several hours talking with a group of residents of Bayside East and seeing first-hand the objects that hold special meaning for them. Residents brought odds and ends gathered over the years, like collections of old newspaper clippings, gifts given to them by loved ones, and even colorful traditional African clothing made by hand.

Through stories and questions, the students learned why these objects were so important to their owners. Then, they created original prints using the objects and stories as influence.

The semester-long project wrapped up in December with a potluck party at the property. The students unveiled their art to the residents and talked about their process. Each student made multiple prints so that the residents could also hang one in their apartment.

One of the residents, Bill, had showed students a geisha doll he’s had for over four decades, purchased overseas when he was serving in the Navy. The doll became a source of inspiration for one student, who made a black-and-white print of its likeness that now hangs in the community room kitchen.

“My 45-year-old gal – it’s nice to see her out,” said Bill.

This partnership is just one way Avesta has been exploring community partnerships to help enhance our residents’ sense of home through art. The importance of art goes beyond aesthetics – it’s a vital part of creating a sense of community and making our residents feel at home.

Partnerships with other organizations also strengthen relationships between our residents and members of the larger community, creating connections that can have a lasting impact. The residents visited the students in their studio to see first-hand how printmaking is done. They also got a personalized tour of the college’s facilities on Congress Street, which was especially meaningful for one resident, who used to work in the building back when it was the Porteous department store.

“It’s community development for both, for us and for (Maine College of Art),” said Bill of the project. “What it brings to the room is what we were looking for. This is extremely nice to have.”

Kate, a student, said they were all initially nervous about leaving the classroom and “stepping out of our comfort zone,” but those feelings quickly dissipated as they spent more time with the residents. “We had a really fun time, they were interested people we wouldn’t normally interact with,” she said. “They were fun to talk with – they always had something interesting to say.

“Every time you have students get out somewhere else, it’s beneficial to your art,” she added.

Rod, one of the residents, said the opportunity to interact with young people held more meaning for him now that he’s getting older and most of his own children have moved away. “Getting to know them has been really great. They’re obviously a really great bunch of kids,” he said. “I think programs like this are really great — this way, you don’t just house older people and forget about them.”

The connection that developed between the residents and the students was great to see, and I’d like to thank Professor Pilar Nadal and her students for enhancing the lives of our residents through art. And a big thank-you to Bill, Phil, Doug, Rod and the other residents who participated in this project and shared their time, energy and hospitality.

Avesta looks forward to working with the Maine College of Art to repeat the program with another group of residents next fall.

* Thank you to Pilar and her students for providing some of the photos for this blog post.


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

The philosophy that guides our advocacy work

At Avesta, we pride ourselves on being active and engaged advocates for safe, decent, affordable housing. We know we need to speak up and explain the cause we work tirelessly on each and every day. The hundreds of people who call and visit our offices every week seeking a roof over their heads are both sobering and motivating.

Our expertise is cobbling together an array of financial resources, which leads to the construction of new housing, preservation of existing housing, new senior living options or guidance to those just seeking information. It is common for a new development to have five to 10 layers of financing, each critical to the project’s completion. Our new HomeOwnership Center and its services are made possible by a wide variety of small grants and bank contributions.

In recent weeks, as Congress works on a federal budget, we have been called on repeatedly to advocate for funding of many specific federal housing programs. These calls are often requests that we advocate for one specific program that may well represent one of the layers of financing in a recent development. We are asked to call or write our Congressional delegation to remind them how important this program is.

And while we recognize the importance of advocacy for housing programs, these requests raise for us a critical question: How do we decide which program to advocate for the most? We struggle to decide which is more important: the federal home block grant program that helps us build new housing, the continuum of care funding for homeless people or the housing counseling funds for those dealing with foreclosures. We can’t pick one program over another when we know the impact that each has on people in need.

Do we turn our backs and instead just leave it to the whims of the administration, Congress and the Washington insiders? Do we claim to be advocates but hide when hard decisions need to be made? We can’t do that either. We are, to our core, to our mission and to our hearts, advocates. We created the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, we serve on the board of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and we actively participate in many state and federal groups whose aim is to ensure everyone has a place to call home.

Instead, we prefer to advocate for a more holistic approach that recognizes that — while the vast majority of housing programs are effective and important — the overall housing budget is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income people in Maine and across the nation. We call for broader discussions on reforming tax policy and examining a redirection of the mortgage interest deduction to better target those who need assistance. We ask that our government step back and figure out what seniors really need for housing so they can live independently as long as possible. We ask that the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission be considered and not shelved, as is often the fate of reports such as these.

We believe in the power of advocacy, but also in being thoughtful in how we use that power, so that when we lend our voice it can be the most effective instead of getting lost in the din. Deciding when and how to speak up isn’t easy, but for us, the question that guides our actions is: What do we really need to do to help the hundreds who come to us this week in search of affordable homes with little hope?

To fight for one program without acknowledging the value of the others is contributing to the balkanization of housing efforts that ultimately undermines the true intent of advocacy work, which is to improve the lives of people in need of housing. It is important that as advocates we not lose sight of broader housing policy by focusing only on the tiny slivers of specific programs.

By Dana Totman, President and CEO

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

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

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