In order to reach Portland’s goal of adding more than 15,000 new residents by 2030, the city must grow its housing supply by 432 units each year. Now, residents of Maine’s largest city are being asked if that’s still something they want, and, if so, what they’re willing to put up with to get there.
The city set those population and housing targets as part of its last comprehensive plan update in 2005, but in order to hit them, Portland would likely need to permit more buildings.
So the city is distributing an electronic survey to gauge how members of the public feel about the now-10-year-old version of Portland’s comprehensive plan — a wide-ranging and legally enforceable document meant to guide the future development of Portland — and to see whether it should stay the course that stakeholders plotted earlier this century.
“I think the challenge of having an aggressive housing goal has to be balancing that with the interest of keeping the city livable,” said Jeff Levine, Portland’s director of planning and urban development. “But there is a lot of potential for additional housing in the city of Portland.”
The survey asks residents about historic properties that should be protected, incentives for allowing developers higher housing densities, and how active the city should be in private development.
It also includes pages of context, including information about previously set Portland goals. The 2005 iteration of the comprehensive plan included a target of growing the city back to 25 percent of the larger Cumberland County population, an effort that would mean attracting 15,268 people by 2030. And by extension, 8,636 more housing units to accommodate them — or 432 units every year.
For comparison, the city added fewer than 3,000 residents between 1990 and 2010.
And in the last year, the city issued permits for 1,000 new housing units, said Levine.
“To be clear, those are just permitted and not all necessarily built yet, but the current pace is good,” he said.
It’s unclear what the public appetite is for such development. The plan revision comes on the heels of a contentious stretch in which high profile projects that could help accomplish those goals became the centers of heated neighborhood disputes, court battles and city-wide referendums.
Levine said the survey has been taken more than 1,400 times, a number that’s a small share of the city’s 66,000-plus population, but which he called “almost unprecedented for a planning survey.”
It’s the first time that the city has gauged public input for its comprehensive plan using an online survey.
“Having done these types of surveys in the past, I’ve just never seen a response this strong, and that’s why we wanted to keep it open another few weeks to see if we can get even more responses,” he said, noting the city has extended the window in which residents can take the survey to Jan. 22.
Levine said the city will also hold public meetings to discuss the comprehensive plan revision, but that not everyone has the time to attend them.
The plan will likely be rolled out and referenced often, especially when discussion turns to housing.
In recent years, neighborhood dustups over the proposed redevelopment of the historic complex on Fore Street and the multi-tower Midtown project in the Bayside area forced the debates all the way to a citywide referendum and a court case, respectively.
In each case, advocates on both sides of the issues pointed to language in the comprehensive plan as supporting their arguments.
Mayor Ethan Strimling has expanded and dedicated a City Council committee for the task of responding to Portland’s housing crunch, and said new rules requiring developers to build affordable units into new projects larger than a certain size are a step in the right direction.
“Right now, to rent an apartment in Portland, there’s a $500-plus affordability gap between what [an average Portlander] earns and what [he or she] pays,” Strimling said. “That’s a huge deal in terms of squeezing out the middle class and not allowing flexibility in the housing market.”
The city’s residential crunch has been well publicized. Low vacancy rates have driven up demand and prices, which have in turn lifted many of the units out of reach for middle and low income residents.
“You’re going to have to both build more housing so that the market can calm down in terms of this zero-percent vacancy rate, but you have to realize that it’s not just a supply and demand problem, too,” he continued. “You can address the gap by adding more housing to the market, but you can also try to push up incomes.”
But are Portlanders willing to accept tall buildings or the redevelopment of historic properties to add units and release some of the pressure?
The survey — which asks residents about historic properties that should be protected, incentives for allowing developers higher housing densities, and how active the city should be in private development — will be one way to find out.
“This is a good opportunity,” Strimling said. “I do think it’s important to recognize, however, that this [survey] isn’t the end-all, be-all. There are a lot of ways that we listen and a lot of ways that we understand different perspectives, and you can’t predict every situation.”
The council’s newly formatted housing committee will begin meeting after the City Council’s Jan. 25 meeting, at which the council is scheduled to discuss its goals for the next year, the mayor said.