“You’re nobody without the trappings of belonging”: What it means to be homeless

Back in December, I attended the Institute for Civic Leadership’s Leadership in Action Breakfast, which featured two advocates for those experiencing homelessness — Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, and Suzanne McCormick, executive director of the United Way of Greater Portland. Both served on the city of Portland’s homeless prevention task force (along with Avesta’s President and CEO, Dana Totman) and had compelling information and experiences to share about homelessness in Portland.

Suzanne described her day shadowing employees at the day shelter, where an elderly man was ill with a cold and wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. But, as Suzanne recounted, lying down is not allowed at the day shelter. This example seemed to really resonate with the crowd, and stuck with me. I take for granted all the comforts that a stable home provides, like a bed to lie in when I’m sick, that those experiencing homelessness must do without. A bed, a place to simply rest, becomes a luxury.

This account will be on my mind tomorrow during Homeless Voices for Justice’s Summer Solstice “sit-out” in Post Office Park in Portland. The summer solstice is the longest day for those experiencing homelessness, and the event demonstrates solidarity and increases community awareness of homelessness during the summer months.

I’ll also be thinking of this moving account of what it means to be homeless that Mark Swann read at that December event. It was written by Bill, a client of the Preble Street Resource Center.

Being homeless means waking up on the floor, mere inches away from a total stranger. It means hoping you can find a seat in the soup kitchen because it is frequently standing room only and you may have to eat standing up. It means walking around in somebody else’s clothes because you don’t have money to buy your own. They don’t fit right but it was the closest you could find from the clothing closet. The shelter had socks so at least your feet are dry, unless it rains and the holes in your shoes start taking in water.

It means carrying everything you own, everything, in a back pack or a black trash bag, trying not to remember when it wasn’t so — the job, the apartment, the wife, the car, the sanity, try to forget the losses, except you can’t because nobody will let you forget — you’re nobody without the trappings of belonging. People will look at you with pity or disgust — hard to know which feels worse. You feel an asthma attack coming on and remember you don’t have an inhaler because you don’t have MaineCare. You hope it’s not too bad and that you can get to the hospital in time if it is. But, who will call 911?

If you’re a woman, you may have to do things your mother told you never to do because you simply can’t take one more night on the floor of the shelter.

It means if you’re a senior citizen, sitting between the two bathrooms at Preble St. and being fearful of leaving because you’re never sure when you’ll have to go.

It means watching from the shadows as the other half lives its life out in the sunshine full of hope and prosperity. And not having either yourself.

Post by Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

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

Celebrating Edith, Avesta’s oldest resident

At the age of 102, Edith Libby is the oldest resident at all of Avesta’s 68 properties. She’s lived at New Marblehead North in Windham since it opened in 1989, and has outlived her husband, her son and her siblings. We asked Edith to share her story with us last year when she turned 101. She told us about leaving her hometown of Rumford despite her parents’ wishes, living on crackers and marshmallows through the Great Depression, and supporting her family after her husband was injured at work.

Now she spends lots of time knitting. It began as a way to make money, and then became a way for her to give back. She’s donated knit clothing to newborns and patients undergoing chemotherapy at Mercy Hospital, for which she received two Governor’s Service Awards.

On Tuesday, Edith was one of six New Marblehead residents who are 90 and older honored with a birthday celebration. The community’s Friendship Club — a group of residents who organize activities — decorated the community room with flowers cut from their gardens and organized a lunch of finger sandwiches, chips, cake and ice cream. Each 90+-year-old received a card and a plant. Three of those six people were able to attend the luncheon in their honor along with a guest.

They also shared their advice for a long life, including “Keep busy,” “have fun,” and “just don’t worry about everything.”

While Edith wasn’t able to attend the luncheon, she was able to receive a plaque commemorating her as Avesta’s oldest resident. The plaque will hang in the New Marblehead community room. Edith was still keeping busy on Tuesday, teaching a visitor how to knit and knitting a scarf herself that she planned to give to a friend — thinking of others as she always has.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Spring home maintenance tasks to protect your investment

Spring seems to finally be upon us. This warmer weather may have you dreaming of relaxing outside with a glass of lemonade, but if you’re a homeowner, spring means it’s time for some home maintenance work. Maintenance performed regularly can help maximize the lifespan of your home and its systems and prevent expensive problems and repairs.

Here’s a checklist of tasks you should tackle to keep your home safe and efficient.

Outside

  •    Inspect your gutters. The April showers probably alerted you to any leaks or blockages. Make sure gutters are clear of leaves and debris, and that downspouts are also clear and drain away from your foundation.
  •    Check your roof. From the ground, inspect your roof for any missing, loose or curling shingles, or nails that have popped up. If you spot any problems, contact a professional roofer.
  •    Repair cracks in concrete or asphalt. Winter can be harsh on driveways and walkways, so repair any cracks you find before they get worse and become a hazard. Spring is also a good time to seal your driveway to help extend its life.
  •    If you have a deck, give it a once-over. Decks can also be damaged due to heavy snows like those we had this winter. Check for split or decaying wood, and make sure railings and banisters are secure. If you can take a screwdriver and easily penetrate a board 1/4-1/2 of an inch, break off a sliver without splinters, or if the wood feels soft and spongy, it may be decaying and need replacing. Read more tips for deck maintenance here.
  •    Check doors, windows and trim for finish failure, broken glass and damaged screens. Be sure to check the caulking at doors, windows and all other openings as well as joints between different materials (e.g., wood and masonry).
  •    Check your lawn mower. Make sure your lawn mower starts, change the oil and see if the blades need to be sharpened. You may also want to do a tune-up or hire a professional to do it.

Inside

  •    Check your doors and windows. Check around doors and windows to make sure there are no water leaks or damage. Fill gaps between doors/windows and trim with caulk, install weather stripping or make sure the existing weather stripping has a tight seal. This will help keep the cool air in over the summer if you decide to run an air conditioner.
  •    Inspect your attic and basement. In the attic, make sure there are no signs of pests or animals living there, and look around for signs of roof leaks or water damage. Check your basement for water leaks and ensure your sump pump, if you have one, is working.
  •    If you didn’t change the batteries in your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors on Daylight Savings Time, then do so now.
  •    Do some spring cleaning. Spring isn’t just a great time to wash your windows. You should also make a habit of checking your washing machine fill hose to make sure it’s not cracked, cleaning your dryer vent of lint, and clean your refrigerator coils to help it run more efficiently.

Your home is a big investment, and regular maintenance protects that investment and helps prevent damage down the road that could cost you money. And once these tasks are done, the lemonade will taste that much sweeter.

By David Stolt, Home Ownership Services 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

What people are saying about the value of our Homebuyer Education Courses

“I didn’t realize all that was involved with the home buying process, but that has changed by taking this class.”

“More helpful than other homebuyer classes I’ve taken.”

“The best $15 I ever spent.”

We love getting this feedback on the evaluations of our Homebuyer Education Courses. It means we’re succeeding in making sure people enter into homeownership with all the knowledge they need to be successful and to sustain their investment for the long-term. (And yes, our classes are just $15.)

A recent study by NeighborWorks (of which Avesta Housing is a chartered member) found that buyers who go through a pre-purchase counseling program are one-third less likely to fall behind on their mortgage in the first two years of homeownership.

Bri and her fiancé, Chris, recently took the class and used what they learned to buy their first home in Gorham. Here’s what Bri had to say about her experience.

How did you hear about the Homebuyer Education Class?

We got a housing loan through USDA Rural Development and it was a requirement to take this class to get our home mortgage loan. We’re glad it was. 🙂

What did you learn at the class that was the most useful or interesting?

Information on credit and how much it affects the home buying process, and in general a detailed review of all the steps of purchasing a home — there is so much information that we weren’t aware of. Also, learning about programs/loans that assist with home maintenance/making homes more energy efficient.

What did you learn that helped you when you were buying your home?

We were already in the process of purchasing a home when we took this class, so probably just to make sure our credit remained stable, what to look for during inspection, and what’s involved in the closing process.

Would you recommend the class to others?

Definitely! It was interactive and very applicable. David was a great presenter and used a lot of real life examples, which was helpful.

 

Are you looking to buy a home, or just wondering if homeownership makes sense for you? Our next class starts May 13. Click here to register.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Unity Gardens community a canvas for resident artist

Sharon Cleaves has made her mark on Unity Gardens. The hallways of the Windham building are lined with her work, mostly pastoral scenes and coastal settings: lighthouses on grassy or rocky coasts; chickadees on moonlit birch trees; and rustic farmhouses, like the one she used to own on the Presumpscot River in Falmouth. She even paints the occasional cowboy.

Upwards of 100 of Sharon’s paintings hang in Unity Gardens, as well as several other Avesta properties in the Windham area. She made sure her favorites were hung on the second-floor hallway outside her apartment, with little cards tucked into the frame that read “not for sale.”

“I love to keep busy,” she says. “I’ve been painting all my life, almost 70 years.”

Sharon’s work now adorns one more spot in Unity Gardens: the elevator door. She recently completed an intricate garden scene that greets residents and visitors alike when they arrive at the elevator.

The painting features a blossom-covered trellis opening to a flower-filled garden, where ladies in pastel-hued dresses and hats — and one dapper fellow in the background — stroll. The detail on the painting is remarkable, from the tiny pink and white blossoms to the bows and lace on the ladies’ dresses and parasols.

The idea to turn the elevator door into a work of art was a “joint effort,” says Sharon. Senior Maintenance Technician Larry Sawyer first suggested it. “He said, ‘The elevator door needs to be repainted – do you know where I’m going from here?’” Sharon recalls. Kim Munro, the Resident Services Coordinator, came up with the subject matter. Sharon was more than willing to lend her talent to the project. “I don’t mind at all, I love doing it.”

She sketched the scene on a piece of paper before getting to work on the door. It took her five days to finish the painting, working from morning to mid-afternoon. The piece was so large she had to work on it in the building’s electrical room, where neighbors would stop by to see her progress as they took out their trash. When the painting was finished, Larry sealed it to keep it safe from scratches and scuffmarks.

The door has been a hit with residents. ‘Everyone has been very kind and complimentary,” says Sharon. “It gives them something to talk about and enjoy.”

Since finishing the elevator door, Sharon — who was the first person to move into Unity Gardens when it opened in 2006 — has already finished another piece for the property, an idyllic scene of horses running through the waves. The painting will hang in the community room.

“Painting is a gift. What good is it if you can’t spread it around and share it with people?”

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