An artists' rendition of a new housing development in Belfast that was recently approved. Credit: Courtesy of Developers Collaborative

BELFAST, Maine — A low-income housing development in Belfast — which some neighbors opposed when they first learned about it last year — has just been given the green light by the state of Maine to start construction. Ground is expected to be broken this coming spring.  

The 36 affordable housing units in the project, located on the site of the city’s former public works garage at 115 Congress Street, will be open to anyone, regardless of their age. The city has been working with Portland-based Developers Collaborative to redevelop the 3.5 acre lot.

Laura Reading, the director of affordable housing at the Portland company, learned last week that the development was one of just seven in the state to be allocated low-income housing tax credits through the Maine State Housing Authority.

Tax credits generate equity from private investors so that the developments can be built, meaning that the $720,000 in tax credits allocated to the Belfast project will help fund it.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Reading said Monday. “This is the second time we had applied for financing, and it’s great to see it come through this time. The city really worked with us over the last year to improve the competitiveness of our application.”

The midcoast region is in a long-running housing crunch, with high rents and low availability combining to put stress on those seeking a place to live. For more than a decade, Belfast officials have made affordable housing a top priority, lauding the recent development of two senior housing projects on Wight Street, just around the corner from the Congress Street site. The Wight Street projects will add a total of 50 apartments to the city’s housing stock.

“It’s still a drop in the bucket, but enough drops, and the bucket gets filled up,” said City Councilor Neal Harkness.

A disgruntled Belfast resident yelled at Mayor Eric Sanders and other city officials during a summer 2020 listening session on the city’s plan to redevelop the former public works lot on Congress Street. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Still, the Congress Street project — which will feature 12 market rate apartments in addition to the 36 affordable ones — was at least initially a tough sell to some residents of the neighborhood where it will be built. About 80 people came to a listening session held at the site in August 2020, and some of them were worried that the subsized housing development would erode the charm of their community or worse.

“I have grave concerns,” Sonja Salvatore, who lived next to the site, said. “I’m also going to go out on a limb and say low-income housing brings a lot of things, like drugs and domestic violence.”

But Raymelle Moody, a longtime city resident and small-business owner who was recently priced out of downtown Belfast, told the meeting attendees that she was the kind of person who would be helped by subsidized housing.

“I implore you to put down your ideas that this will cause your property values to go down, that the folks who live here will somehow bring down your neighborhood,” Moody said then.

Tenants at the Congress Street property would need to pass credit and criminal background checks, and a property manager would spend two or three days a week there.

For many, having subsidized housing is the only way they can afford to live in Belfast. The units in the new Congress Street development will be available to people who make 60 percent of adjusted median income levels for the area. For a two-person family, that is $31,680, and for a four-person family, that is $39,600.

According to the Maine State Housing Authority, people making this much should not pay more than $742 for a one-bedroom apartment in Waldo County, $891 for a two-bedroom apartment or $1,029 for a three-bedroom apartment.

But rents like that are very hard to come by in a community with limited housing available. A recent scan of Craigslist showed only two apartments for rent in Belfast, and although one was $750 for a two-bedroom, the other was $1,000 for a one-bedroom.  

Zafra Whitcomb, a Congress Street resident who lives across from the development site, is in favor of the housing project.

“I sit out in front of my door and watch the sunset every day,” he said at the 2020 listening session. “It will be a real pleasant chance to have it set over houses.”