The last two years have seen unprecedented attention to Maine’s stark housing needs statewide - in terms of widening divides between incomes and housing costs, housing supply not meeting demand, and the inextricable connection between the two. In Portland, acknowledgement of the need for more housing supply, and more affordable housing, hasn’t just begun, it has been a central planning concern for over a decade, resulting in a suite of housing policies and programs that have been adopted or strengthened since the mid-2010’s. These include such tools as inclusionary zoning; dimensional bonuses for affordable housing proposals; expedited review for affordable housing; parking reforms; adjustment to certain zoning districts to permit denser housing creation; a new accessory dwelling unit policy that permits up to two ADUs per residential lot and removes barriers to permitting; and a strategically built and employed housing trust.

Portland’s housing policy framework is robust, various, and in many ways successful. Currently approximately 1,500 dwellings are under construction, 465 of which are dedicated affordable housing, representing the fruition of the over 2,000 new homes approved since 2018 and hundreds more in review. The last five years have also resulted in over $2.6 million required contributions to the City’s housing trust. Much of this housing creation would surely not have occurred without a conducive economic climate, but very little of it would have occurred without concerted local planning efforts that prioritize increasing housing supply, fostering diversity and affordability in new housing creation, and encouraging the greatest residential densities in and near centers and transit. 

And yet, the last two years have seen the gap between incomes and the cost of housing widen, demand on our housing supply tighten, and the need to do more thrown into ever sharper relief. Portland is in good company in this predicament - there are similar housing dynamics in scores of communities throughout the state and the country to differing extents. A recent Portland Press Herald article reported that 41.4% of all renters in the state are cost burdened, and the shortage of affordable housing units are estimated in the tens of thousands, and the Portland metro area (encompassing communities from three counties, from Kittery to Long Island to Biddeford to Yarmouth) has the widest affordability gap of all four of Maine’s largest metro areas. In response, Portland planners have pursued new approaches to housing creation, seeking to bring all tools at our disposal to bear, including:

  • In March of 2022, the City of Portland was selected by NYU’s Housing Solutions Lab to be part of their Peer Cities Network, a national program for small and midsize city leaders from such places as Missoula, MT, Pawtucket, RI, Evanston, IL, and San Marcos TX, to develop innovative and equitable local housing solutions. Planners, researchers, and policy experts from around the country have been engaged in events to offer new techniques, share challenges and identify strategies to address pressing housing policy needs. The Peer Cities network recognizes that many small and mid-sized cities have the challenges that large cities frequently face, but often with fewer resources at their disposal. The program has offered technical assistance, but most crucially an opportunity to share experiences, quandaries and successes.
  • The City’s comprehensive plan, Portland’s Plan 2030, remains an important foundation for change. There’s nothing more ordinary in the context of municipal planning than a comprehensive plan, and comp plans can be what communities need them to be, from dull to dazzling, and in Portland’s case, we’ve never let it sit dusty on the shelf, but actively put it to use as we keep striving to meet its bold vision for an equitable and sustainable city. It didn’t mark the start of our housing efforts but it affirmed, expanded, and articulated the City’s commitment to encouraging greater supply, increasing total affordable housing units, ensuring a diversity of types of housing, and emphasizing locations for growth that reinforce goals for transit, conservation, walkability, and complete neighborhoods.
  •  ReCode Portland is a multi-year initiative to rewrite Portland’s Land Use Code (the code includes zoning, historic preservation, review standards, housing policies, and other land use ordinances) that flows directly out of the goals identified in its comprehensive plan. Bundled within ReCode are numerous policy strands that are being taken up over a number of years, housing being its central strand. The document hadn’t been rewritten in over half a century, and in its first phase it shed over 600 pages from a mammoth and antiquated code, introduced a new, generous ADU framework, and implemented sweeping exemptions from parking requirements. Phase II began two years ago, and involves evaluating Portland’s land use code for how well it aligns with Portland’s Plan 2030’s vision, and proposing changes where regulations and vision don’t converge, examining each zoning district and all corners of the city. Laying the groundwork for ReCode involves reflecting on where we’ve been, looking at where thousands of homes were created in recent years, and which parts of the city didn’t see any growth at all; which neighborhoods only permitted single family home creation or other low density caps that discourage a variety of housing choice; estimating how much housing and how many more people Portland still needs proximate to bus routes to successfully support transit; analyzing where are our dimensional standards - lot size, setbacks, height - discourage traditional, walkable neighborhoods. Having plumbed local housing creation trends, and identified parts of the code most ripe for reform, the challenge now is to propose meaningful changes. Drafting is underway in collaboration with a consultant team, Camiros, applying some familiar tools to new parts of the city, and introducing new concepts we’ve yet to try. The community is accustomed to seeing its downtown grow, as it is in regard to its densest neighborhoods nearest downtown, but introducing a template for change that’s compatible with Portland’s outlying neighborhoods will be a new horizon. As with any major initiative with the potential to incrementally alter a place, community conversations about why housing matters and what form it should take underpin ReCode every step of the way.

Portland’s approach to planning for its urgent housing needs is evolving, but what hasn’t changed in this last eventful decade is that we continue to recognize that there’s not a single, quick, or static solution to something as complex as a housing market. Local planners, local regulations and incentives, can never control all the forces that impact the cost of housing, but we can do a lot, and it will take continuing to bring all the tools we have, and the ones we have yet to devise, to meet this moment.  

Highlights of Portland Housing Projects and Trends (Click to enter slideshow)

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Written by:

Christine Grimando, AICP, Director Planning & Urban Development Department, City of Portland

Christine Grimando, AICP, joined the Planning & Urban Development Department in 2014 as a Senior Planner and became City Planning Director in 2019. She has managed an array of policy initiatives, large scale development review projects, and the creation of Portland’s new Comprehensive Plan. Prior to joining the department she served as a planner in Maine, Massachusetts and New York. She’s a past recipient of an Urban and Regional Policy Fellowship from the German Marshall Fund to study urban sustainability initiatives in the UK and Italy. She holds a Master of Science in Urban Planning from Columbia University.