A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Portland 101 - the housing authority

Last month, I joined a handful of Portland 101 workshops under the auspices of the League of Young Voters, to learn more about how Portland's various government agencies work (read my introductory post here). I learned that relatively little of our "local government" is controlled at City Hall: much of it, from our garbage disposal to our city buses to our drinking water supply, is operated by independent public agencies that operate largely outside of the City Council's control.

In an ongoing series, here's my take on how one of those agencies works, and how those operations impact Portland's built environment.

The Portland Housing Authority is one of the city's largest property owners. It manages over 1000 units of public housing scattered across 62 acres, but its large, monolithic housing complexes dominate several neighborhoods, including parts of the West End, East Deering, and my own neighborhood of East Bayside. It also runs low-income homeownership programs, distributes rent subsidies for renters living in privately-owned apartments, and coordinates some social services in its housing complexes.

The Authority is governed by a seven-person Board of Commissioners who are appointed by members of the City Council for longish 5-year terms. However, the PHA seems to receive most of its funding from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (to confirm this, I've put in several unanswered requests for the Authority's financial statements, which - red flag - aren't available on its website). As a result, the City Council seems content to let the PHA run more or less on auto-pilot.

For the most part, I'd say that the PHA seems pretty well-run. But I also see some glaring opportunities for improvement, starting with trying to integrate the PHA's public housing complexes more elegantly into their surrounding neighborhoods, to try and remove the isolation and stigma that everyone (including the PHA's own residents) associates with public housing.

The PHA's properties were generally built during the urban renewal period of the 1960s and 1970s - and they look that way. They also give over way too much real estate to little-used parking lots, which could be sold and put to better use as development sites for new housing, while also contributing to the city's tax revenue.

One PHA parking lot located one block away from my house, on the corner of Oxford and Boyd in East Bayside, typically has five or six cars scattered about its spacious quarter-acre lot - and most of those seem to be owned by renters in the privately-owned apartment building next door. Thus, the PHA is maintaining a mostly-empty parking lot, primarily for the benefit of the private landlord next door, on a plot of land that could easily support walkable, in-town housing for a dozen or more families:

View Larger Map

This is more than a lost opportunity for a city that needs housing more than it needs parking. These parking lots also blight the neighborhood. It's the kind of no-man's land that makes most outsiders afraid to venture into Kennedy Park. If you replaced this empty pavement with families and front porches, then the neighborhood would feel considerably safer, more welcoming, and vibrant.

Regrettably, this is only one example of many - the PHA owns and maintains seven comparably large parking lots in the East Bayside alone, in addition to many, many more elsewhere in the city. Selling just a few of these lots could provide the agency with enough funds to revitalize some of its most problematic properties, give developers the chance to provide more family housing on the free market, lend more dignity to public housing in Portland, and add thousands of dollars in new revenue to the City's tax base.

But as long as PHA is on the federal funding gravy train, with little oversight from City Hall, they'll have little incentive to put their vacant land holdings to their highest and best uses. Obviously, that's something that should change.

No comments: