Amara Joyce, a young woman with dark blond hair and brown eyes, is seen looking directly into the camera. She is wearing a light brown Carhartt beanie hat, a reddish-brown jacket and a light pink mask is seen around her neck.
Amara Joyce, 22, is pictured as she walks her dog on Free Street in downtown Portland. Joyce, who now lives on Cumberland Avenue, said she had to stay at a friend's house for months after the rent was raised at her old apartment. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Cassiah Zimra, a 29-year-old speech language pathologist, has a master’s degree, excellent credit and strong references from past landlords. But even for her, trying to find housing in Portland was a “nightmare.”

Zimra ended up signing a lease on a winter rental in Old Orchard Beach when she moved from New Hampshire to start a new job. While she wanted to live solo with her dog, she had to move in with two friends. She felt like she had few other options.

“It wasn’t ideal,” she said. “I was ready to find a one-year rental, but I couldn’t find anything that I could afford by myself.”

Although many people want to live in Portland, they are being shut out by an increasingly expensive and aggressive housing market. It’s a problem the city is aware of and is trying to address.

“It’s extremely hard to find a rental unit in Portland at the moment,” said Mary Davis, interim director of housing and economic development for the city. “Particularly one that is affordable.”

There had long been problems with affordability and availability of housing in Portland, she said. But those problems had been exacerbated by the pandemic, she said.

Indeed, rental and housing prices, whose markets are strongly connected, have surged nationwide during the pandemic amid increased demand.

Experts say that demand for renting and buying units has risen for various reasons, including historically low mortgage rates and fewer homes being available. The median cost of a two-bedroom apartment with utilities in the Portland metro rose from $1,105 a month in 2016 to $1,650 in 2020, according to MaineHousing data. That’s nearly $7,000 more every year, and it has seemingly risen more since.

Many out-of-staters have moved to Maine since the pandemic as people move away from large urban centers and seek locations with more outdoor opportunities, leading to fewer rentals to go around.

“There’s just simply a lot more people here than there used to be,” said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “Primarily because COVID just changing people’s perspective on where they can live.”

The desirability of Portland and other Maine communities presents a conundrum, Vitalius notes. Communities that are more hip and desirable to live in will inherently see rises in housing prices.

“I think it speaks to the quality of life that Portland and the state and region can offer,” Davis said. “And of course, all of that just leads to more problems with both available rental units and the affordability of those units.”

Eli Alexander Seemann, a young man with dark brown hair and dark eyes, is seen looking directly at the camera in front of a forest and wooden bridge. He is wearing a backpack, a blue jacket and lighter blue shirt, and khaki pants.
Eli Alexander Seemann is pictured at  Washington’s Olympic National Forest in 2020. After not being able to find a place in Portland, Seemann ended up living around 25 minutes south in Biddeford. Credit: Courtesy of Eli Alexander Seemann

As for finding housing in Portland, the tools on MaineHousing’s website are helpful, she said. Besides standard rental sites, many property management sites in the city also post their own listings, she said.

“There’s no magic silver bullet for one place to go and find all of the affordable or more available units,” Davis said.  

Zimra exhausted all her local connections, including her Portland-based brother who reached out to several friends trying to find a place for her.

But it was Craigslist where she finally found a new, albeit temporary, home in Old Orchard Beach. Her landlords live in The Netherlands most of the year so she chatted with them over Zoom before signing the lease.

“We’ve never met them in-person,” said Zimra, who is looking for new housing for the summer. “It was an interesting scenario.”

For those already living in the city, an uptick in rent can easily price people out and leave them without a place to live. Amara Joyce, 22, of Portland, lived at a friend’s place for three months after she was forced to leave her apartment when the rent was raised.

She was able to find an apartment on Cumberland Ave., but had to pay far more than she wanted to.

“I definitely have to work extra hours now to make sure that I can meet my rent every month,” Joyce said.

Eli Alexander Seemann, 25, a nursing student at the University of New England, said it was far easier for him to find a place in Portland, Oregon, where he moved from than Portland, Maine, despite Oregon’s Portland having 10 times more people.

“It was difficult to know where to look,” Seemann said. “There isn’t a central location where people can really post about it.”

Indeed, listings for rentals are scattered across Zillow, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other sites. Many will get filled based on personal connections, something hardly afforded to people coming in from other communities or states like Seemann.

Unable to find a place in Portland, he opted to live in Biddeford, a city around 20 miles south. He paid more than he wanted to but said he had enjoyed living in the city so far.

The changing housing market is sending many people to surrounding towns in the larger Portland metro, including Biddeford and Saco as well as more distant Lewiston, Vitalius said.

He said that each of those communities is seeing rises in housing prices and more refurbished apartments. Such changes have made those communities more desirable for more affluent professionals and have brought new development but have simultaneously made it harder for lower-income people to find places to live.

The clear answer to the housing problems in Portland and the rest of the state is building more affordable housing, Vitalius noted. He pointed to a December report commissioned by the Maine Legislature that recommended a number of policies municipalities could implement, including zoning changes, to encourage new housing development.

Yet, new affordable housing projects often bring local opposition, as occurred with a now-canceled plan to build a 46-unit building in Cape Elizabeth.

“It was so long that they were just not prosperous communities,” Vitalius said. “Now, they’re starting to feel that transition.”