Skip to content

Portland’s Great Housing Shortage – The Facts

Here are three facts. I’ll prove them shortly, but I’m going to lay these out for you front-and-center.

I. There is a critical housing shortage in Greater Portland.

II. This housing shortage is why housing costs are so high.

III. Building more housing is the only way to fix this.

These three facts are intimidating in their simplicity. I will elaborate, but there’s more to the conversation than truths. The housing debate is shot through with myths, misunderstandings, and outright lies. Here are seven myths that are indisputably false, and I will disprove as well.

MYTHS

i. There’s enough housing for everyone already, it’s just sitting vacant.

ii. “Luxury” housing doesn’t help anyone other than the rich.
We should only build “Affordable” housing.

iii. Building more housing hurts locals and causes gentrification.

iv. Building more housing causes more traffic and hurts the environment.

v. Building more housing causes homelessness.

vi. Denser cities make people poorer.

vii. Portland is full.

If you’ve ever attended a city council meeting where new housing is discussed, dollars to doughnuts you’ve heard concerned citizens throw out at least a couple of these, or variations thereof. In charity I trust that the vast majority believe what they are saying, and are badly misinformed, (though certainly a few are knowingly lying for personal gain). I want to provide a convincing argument for these folks that while your anger and anxieties come from a good place, you’re misdirecting that energy, and should work to see enough housing is built for everyone.

I want to unequivocally state that this article is not a condemnation of anyone. I, too, once badly misunderstood the facts, and it took time for me to understand how wrongheaded I was. It can be embarrassing to realize one’s arguments are wrong, but I want to promise you that there will be no “I told you so”-ing here. If you’re a thoughtful progressive, I encourage you to consider these words with an open mind. If we want to save our city, and our state, we’ll need everyone on board, and that includes you.

Florencia, from The Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493. Artist unknown.

The Shortage ~ The Costs ~ The Solution

The first fact I stated, “There is a critical housing shortage in Greater Portland”, is actually incomplete. More fully it should be followed with “as there is across the country.” The shortage is not limited to Maine, though we are feeling it particularly acutely. Cities almost everywhere, though especially in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the West Coast, and the Great Lakes regions are facing down massive leaps in rental costs, house prices, and general cost of living expenses. It’s worth asking, why is this? I’ll get into that, but first, some statistics.

Even at a national level, the problem is obvious. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve archive, the rental vacancy rate (that is, rental units not currently occupied by a tenant) across the country is 5.8%, a forty-year low. It’s been steadily plummeting since 2010 and is showing no signs of stopping, if we don’t shift course we will hit all-time lows before the end of the decade. In Portland, according to the city’s most recent housing report archive, it’s even worse: just 4.4%. The relationship between a low vacancy rate and rising rents is obvious, tenants with fewer options are forced to submit to increasingly outrageous demands from landlords. If I can say to my landlord, “well, there’s plenty of empty apartments I could move to”, he’s a lot less likely to unfairly jack up my rent. But just in case: data archive from Harvard University illustrates the phenomenon. The lower the vacancy rate, the higher the rent.

But it’s not just rents, housing prices too are deeply affected by this phenomenon. And here the problem is even more stark. In Portland, just 1.1% archive of homes able to be purchased are vacant. This isn’t a tight market – this isn’t a market at all. Anyone that has tried to buy a home can tell you the same thing. It isn’t just that the homes for sale are expensive, it’s that there aren’t any at all. As of May 2022, according to redfin.com archive, homes for sale in Maine were on the market for a median of just six days. This is down from over a month being the norm prior to 2020. There’ve been periods where South Portland has no houses on the market at all. Zero. They aren’t being held vacant by greedy speculators (more on that later), there just aren’t enough homes for the amount of real, mostly normal people trying to buy them.

How bad is the shortage? Pretty damn bad. According to the NLIHC archive, Maine in 2020 was already short nearly 20,000 affordable housing units from what we need to adequately house our population. (I already see some of you stumbling over the word ‘affordable’, don’t worry, we’ll get there.) The problem is only getting worse, as year on year we don’t build nearly enough housing to keep up with population growth. The population in Greater Portland has been increasing rapidly, a rise of 8.3% from 2010 to 2021, or almost 43,000 people, according to U.S. Census data. This trend, too, shows no sign of abating. Who is moving to Portland? Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not all greedy Floridians. A mixture of local population growth, (families having children, etc.), intrastate migrants from the rest of Maine, and yes, out-of-state transplants, have all contributed to this figure.

And how much are we building every year? Data is imprecise, but according to MaineHousing archive over the same period and geographical area that Greater Portland gained nearly 43,000 new residents, we’ve built not quite 12,000 new units. That means over the past decade, roughly 30,000 people have had to try and make do where they can, squeezing into a city and its environs that has not built enough for them. The wealthier of these 30,000 can buy their way in, displacing locals by outbidding them on rents and house prices. The poorer of these end up in precarious living situations, or on the streets.

Are we doing any better now? In the first six months of 2022, Portland proper approved about six hundred units. This isn’t nearly enough, and voices from the development community are suggesting archive that things will get even worse over the coming years due to restrictive laws against housing. But are the suburbs building more? Westbrook archive is aiming to approve several hundred units this year, whereas in 2021 they approved fewer than 200, but Portland’s other satellite towns appear to be continuing their typical sluggish pace of construction. By all accounts, our massive shortfall will continue growing, not start shrinking. But even this correlation between population and housing is somewhat deceptive, and it’s even worse than it looks. The number of people in a typical household has fallen significantly archive over the past decades, meaning that while three people in 1980 were more likely to be a mother, father, and child, able to more comfortably tuck into a single unit. In 2022 they’re more likely to be three single adults, looking for a housing unit each.

Why is there a housing shortage? There are many reasons that involve both an increase in demand and a decrease in supply. The increase in demand we’ve already mostly addressed, looking at the rising population and falling household sizes. But add to this a nationwide phenomenon, the New Urbanization, a wave of young people moving into cities as job opportunities are increasingly clustered in population centers and less common out in the smaller towns and countryside. Joe Cortright at CityObservatory goes into further detail archive on this wave, and how its contributing to the rising costs of living. But that’s just the demand side.

Ever since 2010, America as a whole has utterly failed archive to build housing. In 2006, we were building over two million (that’s 2,000,000) new housing units every month. By 2010, we were building fewer than 600,000. This trend holds true for Maine specifically as well. This rate has been slowly recovering over the past decade, but is still well below what we were building prior to the Great Recession. Considering that speculation bubble in the housing market was a partial contributor to that financial crisis, the initial pull-back could’ve been expected, but to say that we over-corrected would be an understatement.

Besides this national trend, however, there’s also several issues peculiar to Portland. Shortly following the second world war, Portland demolished “slums” archive and reduced the amount of housing across the city. With economic doldrums in the mid-20th century, Portland took steps to preserve the character of the city and the property values of its landowners. Restrictive zoning measures, vast swathes of the peninsula given over to historical districts which limit construction and renovation, and a general aversion to new construction meant that the city sank into a sleepy complacency. The Portland Townsman is planning to publish a more in-depth illumination on this history of Portland’s urban development, we hope readers will consult this forthcoming piece for more details on the particular inadequacies of 20th century Portland in preparation for the housing crisis. As the population began to rise again ahead of the new millennium to this very day, local politics has been characterized by the tension between those who want to keep things as they’ve always been – at the risk of displacing the younger generation of Mainers – and those who are taking the housing shortage seriously.

What does this shortage look like? Well it looks like a lot more homeless people. It looks like people cramming into uncomfortable roommate arrangements. It looks like locals not getting married or having children. It looks like the local youth getting the hell out of here as soon as they graduate. It looks like people spending more than half their paycheck on their rent or mortgage. It looks like victims of domestic abuse too terrified of losing their housing to escape their situation. It looks like fewer businesses being started. It looks like fewer giving to charity. It looks like employers taking greater advantage of their employees. It looks like stress, and anxiety, and fear.

So if there’s a housing shortage, and this shortage is causing high housing costs, it is only logical that relieving this shortage by building more housing will relieve the crisis. So to do this, we must allow for massive amounts of construction, both public and private, to get our supply back on track. But, does building new housing really lower housing costs?

Yes.

There is academic consensus on this fact. Denying that the housing shortage is the cause of high housing costs is equivalent to denying that human-caused greenhouse gasses are causing climate change. New, dense housing all over Greater Portland is needed, as much as possible, as fast as possible.

But don’t take my word for it – leading economists at UCLA archive have assembled data from across the country and found that building new market-rate housing lowers the cost of housing in cities for everyone, from the lowest income families to the wealthiest residents. The Legislative Analyst Office in California archive found the same. The Brookings Institute archive found that neighborhoods that built more and denser units in and around Washington D.C. stayed more affordable than those that stagnated. Noah Smith, for Bloomberg, reports the same phenomenon, that “lifting limits on construction lowers rents in hot cities. Restricting development does the opposite.”

Alan During, executive director of the Sightline Institute archive , alongside Nolan Gray of the FEE archive, found that municipalities in America which built enough to keep up with population growth have far lower housing costs than those which failed to do so. Chief among these are Chicago, IL, which builds far more housing than large cities on the coasts and has housing costs half as high; Houston, TX, which puts virtually no limits on construction and has seen quality of life for its poorest citizens soar past the northeast; and Charlotte, NC, which too boasts building surpluses and very affordable rents and mortgages. These cities have their problems, to be sure, but none are intrinsic to their ethos for building housing.

One should not limit oneself to America, however, as the greatest success stories are to be found abroad. Montreal, Canada, has been a pioneer of the “missing middle”, building huge amounts of mid-rises, townhomes, triplexes, and other dense-but-not-tall housing. Its citizens have been rewarded with cheaper rents and a dynamic economy. Germany and Austria offer even greater examples of huge construction, with cities constantly growing larger, taller, and denser, all connected by state-of-the-art public transit and options for pedestrians and cyclists. As a result, residents enjoy negligible housing costs and healthy communities.

The greatest success story of all, however, is Tokyo, Japan. Tokyo allows for practically unlimited freedom for property owners to develop their land, with no red tape, and this has resulted in an enormous surplus of units. While Japan in general has a shrinking population, Tokyo continues to grow – but Tokyo’s housing construction is actually outpacing its population growth. And these aren’t tiny pods inside skyscrapers, most of Tokyo’s buildings are mid-rises or smaller, and residential space per person has been steadily rising for over 50 years. These are large, comfortable, versatile housing units in one of the largest cities in the world, and yet Tokyo’s residents spend less on housing than any city in America. I know what you’re thinking, “Japan isn’t America,” and boy are you right. But you might be surprised by the similarities in habits, household size, and preferences. The Japanese aren’t a different species, these are policies that any American city could adopt tomorrow. Why not Portland? Imagine spending less than a fifth of your income on housing!

Evan Mast, economist at MIT and the W.E. Upjohn Institute found in a remarkably intricate and painstakingly thorough study archive not only that developing new “luxury” housing reduced the costs for lower-income renters, but exactly how that happened. He meticulously traced over 52,000 households as they moved from residence to residence, wealthier renters moving into newly-available luxury units, leaving middle-market units open to middle-class professionals, and relieving cost pressures on the least expensive units. This is sometimes decried as impossible, as “trickle-down housing”, but we have substantial documented proof that this is indeed what happens, and what good news it is that this is so!

How much, exactly, does new housing help with housing costs? We have surprisingly concrete numbers.

This study by MIT economists archive (including the inestimable Mast), found that in cities like Portland, “New buildings decrease rents in nearby units by about 6%.” Far from the doomsday predictions by some anti-housing activists, a new tower going up in your neighborhood is far more likely to lower your rent than raise it.

But for entire cities, we have this incredible study archive from one of Germany’s premier economists, Andreas Mense – across a myriad of cities and scenarios, “[A] one percent increase in housing completions tends to be associated with a 0.4 percent to 0.7 percent decrease in rents.” This is excellent news, but also somewhat daunting. It shows that yes, building new housing does make a city more affordable at a consistent, predictable rate. But it also shows the challenge we have ahead of us. To get its rent prices back under control, we will need to build thousands of new units. This is eminently possible, we have the space and resources, but it will require the full commitment of our community and political leaders to face this challenge, in partnership with both public housing authorities and the private sector, and overcoming the protests of anti-housing activists.

These anti-housing voices, which can often be heard in the choirs of social media and giving public comment at city council meetings, often offer a number of reasons as to why building more housing is not the answer to Portland’s housing shortage. They are almost entirely false, and usually fall under one of the following myths.

MYTH ONE
“THERE’S ENOUGH HOUSING FOR EVERYONE ALREADY, IT’S JUST SITTING VACANT”

We’ve already seen conclusively that there is a real shortage, a “brick-and-mortar” shortage, of housing. But nevertheless, when discussing this shortage, many people of a more progressive bent assume that we must have plenty of housing – it’s just being locked up by greedy rich people for summer homes, Airbnbs, speculatory investments, etc. and that we need only seize these properties from the wealthy and redistribute them to the needy to solve our crisis.

I’d like to state that I have no issue with most measures designed to punish wealthy squatters – heavily restricting Airbnb, punitively taxing non-residents, etc. are all ideas which I am highly amenable to. But the shortage we’re facing is real, it is absolute, it is not just one of inequitable distribution.

Still you’ll often hear phrases thrown out like, “There are more than ten million empty homes in the country!” As a matter of fact, this is true – but these houses aren’t where people need to live. Rundown ranches in Presidio County TX, swamp cottages in Bertie County, NC, or abandoned homesteads in Box Elder, UT, (all counties with a significant amount of vacant homes), don’t do much for anyone who actually has to work for a living. We want to live where the jobs are, and for most people that means cities and their suburbs.

We also discussed earlier how market vacancies are good for renters and homebuyers, and consistently equate to cheaper rents and house prices. A “market vacancy” in this context refers to rental units that are empty because they’re on the market, or houses currently up for sale. More market vacancies mean it’s a buyers market, and housing costs go down.

Also often caught up in the “vacancy” numbers are units not currently suitable to inhabit, either at all or for part of the year. We’re not going to put people into unsafe structures, so we have to write those off as well.

But usually people are talking about seasonal vacancies, in which housing units are used for only part of the year, (if at all), by their owners, and sit uselessly empty for the remainder of the time, neither up for sale or rent. Too many of these would in fact be a problem, and if we do have a couple dozen thousand of these just waiting to be appropriated, we could end the shortage tomorrow! So do we?

No. Per the most recent estimates from MaineHousing, Portland has 1,300 or so seasonal vacancies. If we include the surrounding towns, that number bumps up to about 1,800 seasonal vacancies. That’s not nothing! But even if the Soviet of New England were established tomorrow and Maine’s Commissar were to seize these for redistribution, we’d still be tens of thousands units short of what we need to house everyone. 1,800 units isn’t even enough to house the more than 3,000 homeless persons archive in Portland alone.

But it’s important to realize that we aren’t going to seize these houses. So long as wealthy people exist, (and they’ve been around for at least twelve thousand years or so), they’ll spend their money on procuring additional living accommodations. This isn’t even inherently a bad thing! It’s only really bad when there’s a shortage. We should alleviate the shortage by building how we used to.

But are houses being bought up by big Wall Street capital firms, with scary names like “Blackstone”, and hoarding supply that way? Isn’t that causing the shortage? No, not really. There certainly have been renewed investments from investment firms like Blackstone into residential housing over the past several years, but 1) these represent still a small minority of units, less than 0.5% archive, with Blackstone owning less than 0.1%. 2) While you might have objections to large firms buying up housing, (I know I do), they aren’t letting them sit empty. In fact, rentals owned by these large firms actually have vacancy rates lower than the national average, and generally improve them for better use at greater rates than small-time landlords. But still, you and I both probably agree that the recent plunge into the housing market by these titanic capital firms is a bad sign. But what you need to understand is that they’re following the shortage – not causing it. When there’s a housing shortage and housing costs are rising so quickly, it only makes sense that investors would want to get a piece of the action. We need to end the shortage to change this cycle.

To stop Blackstone (et al.) from buying up housing, they’d need to lose money on their investment. And what causes Blackstone to lose money on their investment? Well we don’t have to guess, from their own SEC report archive, their primary housing speculation vehicle has this to say: “We could also be adversely affected by overbuilding or high vacancy rates of homes in our markets, which could result in an excess supply of homes and reduce occupancy and rental rates. Continuing development of apartment buildings and condominium units in many of our markets will increase the supply of housing and exacerbate competition for residents.”

You heard it here first folks! Bankrupt Blackstone, build housing!

MYTH TWO
“’LUXURY’ HOUSING DOESN’T HELP ANYONE OTHER THAN THE RICH. WE SHOULD ONLY BUILD ‘AFFORDABLE’ HOUSING.”

First, let us dispense with two unwieldy words – “luxury” and “affordable” – which are of no help to anyone. “Affordable” is used in too many different ways to be useful. Sometimes it means housing subsidized, or wholly paid for, by the government. Other times it means free market housing aimed at lower income brackets. Other times it refers to housing which, while not subsidized, is required by the state to be rented and/or sold at below a certain rate. Let us use more accurate terms for these categories. When housing is subsidized, let’s call it “subsidized housing”, and for that latter kind of housing, mandated by the government to be rented and/or sold under a particular metric, the City of Portland has a word for this in its laws, “workforce housing.” I will use “affordable” to refer only to housing being rented or sold on the open market, but for a price that is accessible to its working-class residents. And as Daniel Hertz explicates archive, the vast majority of homes that are affordable to working class people are sold or rented on the open market!

When people say “luxury”, usually what they mean is “market-rate”, that is to say, not subsidized by the state. The vast majority of housing built across the country is, by this metric, luxury. Sticker shock for these new units can often be severe, true, but that’s typical. New housing, just like new cars, is often as expensive as it will ever be. Like cars, apartments naturally deprecate over time. This deprecation can be partially counteracted by a housing shortage, as it is in Portland, but economist Stuart S. Rosenthal at Syracuse University has concluded archive from the data that, isolated from other factors, housing deprecates by roughly 1.9% per year. That is to say, that a 50-year-old home is typically occupied by a resident with an income about 60% that of its original resident, adjusted for inflation.

At risk of seeming condescending, let me illustrate this process simply, to make sure there’s no confusion. Let’s say an apartment building constructed in 1960 is all the rage that year, and only the city’s wealthiest residents can afford to live there. But time passes, and soon its 1980. A new building just went up, and apartments there cost a lot. Wealthy citizens move in, and so to stay competitive, that 1960 building is now offering units for rent at prices more accessible to the middle-class. More time passes, and to ring in the new millennium, a building that went up in 2000 is attracting all the wealthiest citizens. Those 1980 apartments are now catering to the middle-class, and the 1960 apartment, with its dated style and amenities, is offering cheap rates to working-class families and recent immigrants. Yes, this really is how it used to work. But now imagine if those buildings in 1980 and 2000 never went up. That 1960 apartment would still be as expensive as ever.

For a further illustration, imagine if all the big car manufacturers stopped making new cars. (A situation not too far from what happened over the past couple years.) What do you think would happen to the prices of used cars? They would skyrocket, of course.

So, asking that developers only build affordable housing is a bit like asking that car manufacturers only build used cars.

Nor is this phenomenon new. Often, older citizens imagine that in the past, new housing was sold to people at a fairer price than new housing is today. This too is a myth. CityObservatory thoroughly debunks this archive, as America has always built new housing for the top-end of its income brackets. But this is no problem, as so long as we’re building more, older housing naturally cycles into affordability for the less wealthy classes. The only danger arises when, as we have now, we find ourselves with a broken cycle of construction. With not enough new housing entering the market, older housing isn’t deprecating at the rate it should be. This is why we need to build more housing of all kinds, including “luxury” units.

I’ve already shared several studies and reports which demonstrate that new market-rate housing consistently leads to lower rents. But here’s some more. Issi Romem, economist and fellow at the Terner Center, found archive that cities expanding the most in both population and market-rate housing construction are also the cheapest to live in. Lisa Govoni for the Montgomery County Planning Board found archive that “the shortage of rental housing at the high end of the market creates downward pressure on less affluent renters.” Recent articles by experts in the field in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vox, The Nation, and countless more all amplify the chorus.

And I will again point the reader towards this spectacular piece by Alan During, referenced earlier, which thoroughly demolishes the idea that a city can’t build its way to affordability.

MYTH THREE
“BUILDING MORE HOUSING HURTS LOCALS AND CAUSES GENTRIFICATION.”

“Gentrification” is a hot-button word, so we should define it clearly. I understand it, in the context of Portland, Maine, as a synonym for “displacement”, that is, long-term residents of an area being forced to move elsewhere due to increasing housing costs. So, does building new housing displace locals?

No, quite the opposite in fact! If you think about it, this is intuitive. If wealthy people from out-of-state really are coming to Portland, we have two options. We can either build new housing for them to move into, or if we don’t, they’ll just bid us out of house and home. The latter is displacement, the former is mutually beneficial growth. Building housing, then, is how we prevent displacement, not its cause.

But okay, you want some more concrete data. Easily done. Beyond what’s already been concluded from previous studies, Berkeley economists Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk found archive that every two units of market-rate housing have the same effect of preventing displacement as one subsidized unit. This proves that subsidized units are more effective, but only at great financial cost to the city. Meanwhile, even privately developed market-rate units are capable of absorbing displacement at a not-dissimilar rate! And these are profitable for the private sector to build, if we let them be. Furthermore, by liberalizing zoning codes and allowing for more new construction, Michael C. Lens and Paavo Monkkonen at the American Planning Association found archive , will reduce ‘income segregation’ between neighborhoods and limit growing wealth inequality. Jonathan Rothwell & Douglas S. Massey found archive that no only income segregation, but ethnic and racial segregation too were effectively combated by permitting for expansive construction.

Gentrification happens when there’s an influx of new residents to a city, and the city doesn’t build enough to accommodate them. If we want to prevent displacement, we need to make sure that locals aren’t being bought out of their homes, and to do this, we need to build more housing.

MYTH FOUR
“BUILDING MORE HOUSING CAUSES MORE TRAFFIC AND HURTS THE ENVIRONMENT.”

This is another pernicious falsehood that nevertheless seems true. More people means more cars, more cars means more traffic, and more greenhouse gasses. Right?

But what this misses is that when there’s a shortage of housing, people that work in cities are forced to live far away from their workplace, which means they need a car, they have a longer commute, and they emit more greenhouse gasses. When someone both lives and works in a downtown area, they can easily walk, bike, or take public transit to work. I had the privilege of both working and living on the peninsula for a time, and my daily walk to and from work was one of the best parts of my day. Now that my office has relocated to Falmouth, my 15-minute walk has transformed into a 15-minute drive, and I contribute to traffic where I did not before.

But again, you don’t have to take my word for it. Daniel Kammen, Professor of Energy at Berkeley, found archive that building more housing leads to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. In an expansive report archive by Joe Cortwright with CityObservatory, it was found that “Cities with more compact development patterns have shorter travel times“, and that in densely built cities “the typical traveler spends 40 fewer hours per year in peak hour travel than the average American because of the shorter distances they have to travel.”

The key isn’t to push people out of the cities, so they have to commute long distances, creating traffic and CO2. It’s to let people live where they work by building enough housing.

MYTH FIVE
“BUILDING MORE HOUSING CAUSES HOMELESSNESS.”

Homelessness is a very difficult problem. It has manifold causes and factors – but building housing is not among them. In a compelling study archive by Stanford researcher Emily B. Fox with economist Chris Glynn, homelessness is strongly correlated with high rents, and as we’ve seen, building more housing steadily reduces rent. And from previous studies referenced, cities which have built the most (such as Chicago or Houston) also have far lower homelessness rates than the northeast, or especially the west coast.

The answer is so simple as to almost be silly – to prevent homelessness, build more homes.

MYTH SIX
“DENSER CITIES MAKE PEOPLE POORER.”

The exact opposite of this is true. Sprawl makes people poorer. In a landmark study by Chiang-Tai Hsieh, economist at University of Chicago, and Enrico Moretti, economist at Berkeley, found archive that the inability for America’s most productive and dynamic cities to adequately house workers has almost inestimable costs. “The cost for the country of too-stringent housing regulations in high-wage, high-productivity cities in forgone gross domestic product is $1.4 trillion.”

To make that even more visceral, (a trillion is a hard number to even think about), they found that anti-housing restrictions cost “for the average American worker, an additional $6,775 in annual income.” What would you do with an additional $7k in your pocket every year? That’s how much anti-housing policies cost you.

MYTH SEVEN
“PORTLAND IS FULL.”

Are you kidding me? The peninsula is spangled with gigantic, empty parking lots. Dirt patches line the outer streets, undeveloped lots sit beckoning. Single-family houses with giant lawns occupy about half of Portland’s residential space, just waiting to be built up into townhomes, duplexes, courtyard apartments, and tower blocks in which to incubate community. Portland isn’t full. It’s barely getting started.

In the 1950s and 1960s, prior to the clearances and demolitions perpetrated by the city, Portland was denser than it is today. I am not pushing for something radical, I’m pushing for something eminently traditional, conservative, perennial even! I want to return to the pattern of human habitation that has predominated since the ancient cities of Sumer and Ur, and was only briefly thrown off-course by the odd economic circumstances of the Baby Boomer generation.

~

The road ahead is difficult. We have a lot to do. We need to build a city with enough housing for all of its people. But the people of New England are tenacious, some might say stubborn, and are never willing to let an injustice go unrighted. I have faith in Portland, a city with so much beauty and potential that it’s practically bursting at the seams. Demand what we all require. More housing now!

Greater Portland is defined as being equivalent to the Portland Metropolitan Area, of Cumberland, York, and Sagadahoc counties.

Ashley D. KeenanAshley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer on urbanism, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the national housing crisis, building sustainable and livable cities, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiancé and can be personally reached at ashley@donnellykeenan.com.

9 Comments

  1. Quinn Quinn

    This was a great read. As someone that has always supported building more housing but believed that building expensive or luxury housing would only exasperate the situation, your article showed the opposite was true through logic but was also backed by studies and facts.

  2. Matt Matt

    We need the state to step up more on tiny houses and we need financing to catch up too. Plenty of articles about tiny homes out there, not much articles about the tremendous hurdles people have getting into one securely. They need to be financed, they need to allow 800 sq feet not 400, one to a property based on the size of the lot, allow more if there are more acres. This is the future. Single people are never spoken about because they don’t exist to the media, but all single people have been shut out of the market unless they are rich. Also tired of the only people getting sympathy from the media are millennials. This is affecting all generations within buying range, and there’s a particular story about those aging and not yet retired that are shut out – we don’t have the years the millennials do to make up for the extreme cost.

  3. Carle Henry Carle Henry

    Thank you!

    Re the Historic District points raised, I concur & have been ‘fighting’ this misperception with the city for a few years.

    There is an opportunity to reduce and remove districts. There are also opportunities to redraft the onerous relevant ordinance. Any interest in joining that debate?

    • Robert O'Brien Robert O'Brien

      That was one of the few assertions in this article that cited no references to back it up. The City has hired an economic firm to measure the impacts of Portland’s historic districts. Let’s look at the facts first.

      • TW TW

        Robert, there will be no conclusive facts come from this study. It is t possible with the data they can analyze. This study is flushing $60K down the toilet. It should have been used to help build housing.

  4. Molly Molly

    Great article! Very informative and I learned a lot! Let’s get more housing in Portland!!

  5. West West

    It’s not just Portland. Every city along the coast up through Hancock County right now needs at least one 3 to 6 story multi-unit building, whether condos, co-op housing or apartments walkable to it’s downtown. They would be gobbled up in a month by the young, seniors, and all those who would rather walk or bicycle or take public transportation if we had any. Efficiencies and one and two bedroom units would work for many of us these days. Construction costs and lack of workers in the building trades mean that it is much more cost effective to build up than it is to build accessory dwelling units. I would also encourage communities to allow more conversion of large homes into more than just one additional dwelling unit. Our new LD 2003 housing law will requires only one dwelling unit in an existing structure, but allows another if outside the existing dwelling. Isn’t it environmentally and economically better to use an existing home, especially when most of us have smaller households than before. Allowing more folks not constituting a “family” as zoning ordinances define it might also provide a few more housing options.

  6. Berry Manter Berry Manter

    Unmentioned is the enhancement of efficient transit systems from outlying towns and throughout Cumberland county, thus retaining the essential draw of Portland and benefiting the wider economic strata of housing needs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.