This article was originally published in MaineBiz by Maureen Milliken
(Caption: A MEREDA Morning Menu panel, from left, Shannon Richards of Hay Runner, who was moderator; developer Brian Eng, of Maine Cooperative Development Partners; and Andy Reicher of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, discussed cooperative limited equity housing.)
Cooperative limited-equity housing, which could bring more than 100 units to Portland in the next few years, is a model some developers hope will catch on and make a dent in Maine's housing crisis.
Brian Eng, of Maine Cooperative Development Partners, said creative thinking to solve the state's housing crisis "is just crucial right now." Eng was part of a MEREDA Morning Menu panel Thursday that also included Andy Reicher, executive director of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, which has been developing cooperative housing in New York City for decades. Shannon Richards, of Hay Runner, was moderator.
Eng's group is building cooperative limited-equity housing in two Portland neighborhoods. He said that it is not only difficult for area residents to find a home to buy, but employers, desperate for workers in skilled onsite jobs, are finding people turning down a job or rescinding an accepted one because they can't find a place to live.
The city of Portland is "very motivated" to find a solution to the area's housing crunch, Eng said. On a larger scale, "It hurts us as a state when people can’t live within communities where they work, or in close proximity."
MCDP, which includes Liz Trice and Matt Peters, is developing Lambert Woods, in the North Deering neighborhood, and Douglass Commons, off lower Congress Street. Both will be cooperative limited equity developments. With cooperative ownership, residents own the development, paying shares that cover the mortgage, maintenance and other expenses. In a limited-equity coop, resale value is limited to keep the units affordable in the future.
Cooperative housing efforts aren't new to Maine. Some notable projects are the 10 manufactured home communities in the state that are now resident-owned with help from ROC USA, which works with Cooperative Development Institute, and Raise-Op, in Lewiston, where residents of three apartment buildings own 13 units.
MDCP's projects are unique in that housing is being built, rather than making a co-op out of existing housing.
The Lambert Woods development will have 48 units, and eventually more, and Douglass Commons will have up to 56 small single-family homes in a project that's in partnership with Szanton Co., which is building a 52-unit apartment complex.
Eng said the projects specifically target Portland area residents who make between $50,000 and $120,000 a year, but have to rent because they can't afford to buy a house. “It's a very discouraging time to be a household which makes, at least on paper, a very solid income, but can't afford to buy," Eng said.
The focus of such developments is home ownership, Eng and Reicher said, not building equity in order to make a big profit on reselling a home. Eng said it's more important for many people to have a stable mortgage over the years, benefiting from a fixed housing cost. "The idea is to build wealth outside of home equity, which is more flexible, more liquid," he said.
Reicher said that UHAB's co-ops appreciate 3% a year, so owners know what they'll get if they want to sell in 10 years. "We’re trying to have different perspective on the notion of wealth," he said.
When people can afford their housing, it means they can grow financially in other ways, Reicher said. "You actually have disposable income, an opportunity to use unused income to start a business, or go to school, or send your kids to college," he said.
"What resonates with me is, how I can build wealth if live an hour from my job?'" Richards said. Things like added day care costs, the extra commuting time, and more, all can have a financial impact. "It adds to the deficit," she said. "This is a chance to own close to a more urban area, and facilitate wealth in other ways."
Benefits for state and communityFinancial costs for developing the projects in Maine are supported by the state's Maine Cooperative Affordable Housing Act, which allows limited equity housing ownership, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development 213 Program, which insures cooperative housing mortgages.
Eng said that while the Portland projects are still in the conceptual phase, they're hoping for a buy-in price for home owners of $10,000 or less. The development group is working with lenders who can support loans of that size to borrowers.
In general, Eng and Reicher said, co-ops build a sense of community and the "sweat equity" shareholders put in also helps develop skills that lead to more community involvement, pursuit of education and better job opportunities.
Eng said that both Lambert Woods and Douglass Commons also focus on walkability, recreation and community, and will be built to energy-efficient passive house standards.
While the focus of his development group is currently on Portland, he said that other parts of the state can benefit as well. One issue is that, for the limited-equity model, there are resident income limits and what their cost is is based on area median income. In Portland, that's fairly high — $70,630 for a one-person household — but it's lower in the rest of the state, making it tough for developers to balance costs.
Eng said the group is actively working with people on the state level, given that workforce housing has been identified in the state's 10-year economic plan. "There are are substantial financial gaps" that have to be plugged, he said.
The Maine Cooperative Development Partners is negotiating a purchase and sales agreement for Douglass Commons, where they’re looking to build over 100 units of cooperative housing units and apartments. Matt Peters, left, Liz Trice and Brian Eng of Maine Cooperative Development Partners pose Saturday at the Douglass Street site, the former location of West School, which was torn down in 2015. The Portland City Council has also approved a purchase and sale agreement with the group to develop 165 Lambert St. into at least 20 units of cooperative housing in North Deering near the Falmouth line. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
This article was originally published in the Portland Press Herald.
by Randy Billings
Over the last year, the City Council has partnered with two fledgling organizations to develop three city properties into housing cooperatives, which are owned and managed by residents, not a landlord.
Fiston Mubalama stands outside a housing cooperative apartment building on Pierce Street in Lewiston on Sunday. Mubalama moved into a three-bedroom unit in the building over a year ago and likes the cooperative ownership model. “With the co-op, it’s way different, because we all look out for each other,” he says.
Back in March, Houssein Abdi attended a special meeting to find a way to help fellow tenants whose lives were just starting to be upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
They hatched a plan to prevent any tenants from being evicted for nonpayment of rent and to help find additional support for five households struggling to make ends meet.
“We came together as an emergency and decided there would be no evictions and there would be no penalties for a person not paying their carrying charges,” said Abdi, 39, who works for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
But in this case, Abdi and his fellow tenants were also the landlords. And the process they used to help one another was a democratic one, rather than a decision handed down from a single property owner.
They are members of the Raise-Op housing cooperative in Lewiston, where residents are directly responsible for managing their property and setting their rents, or carrying costs. It’s a housing model that that has flourished elsewhere in the United States, including New York City and Washington, D.C., but is relatively rare in Maine.
That could all change in the coming years, as Portland places a big bet that housing co-ops can help create permanently affordable housing for the so-called “missing middle,” or those who earn too much money to qualify for subsidized housing but don’t make enough to afford market-rate housing.
Over the last year, the City Council has partnered with two fledgling organizations – Maine Cooperative Development Partners, which includes affordable housing developer Nathan Szanton, and the Greater Portland Land Trust – to develop three city properties into housing cooperatives.
The council last week approved a purchase and sales agreement with Maine Cooperative Development Partners to develop 165 Lambert St. into at least 20 units of cooperative housing in North Deering near the Falmouth line. The group is also negotiating a purchase and sales agreement for 43 and 91 Douglass St., where they’re looking to build over 100 units of cooperative housing units.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Greater Portland Community Land Trust is working on a proposal to build 16 cooperative housing units at 21 Randall St.
Urban housing co-ops are relatively new to Maine, but are common in other parts of the county.
In the United States, more than 1.2 million families, of all income levels, live in homes owned and operated through cooperative associations, according to the National Association of Housing Cooperatives. They are mostly concentrated in urban centers, including Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami and San Francisco.
Julian Rowand, a cooperative development specialist with the nonprofit Cooperative Development Institute, said there are currently 10 rural housing co-ops in Maine, primarily for manufactured and mobile homes. But Lewiston’s Raise-Op is the only urban co-op in the state.
Rowand said Portland’s projects have been years in the making and he expects the model will play a key role in helping to address the city’s housing crisis.
“I really applaud (the City Council) for taking this step,” Rowand said. “In the last few years, people have been really interested in this as a way to preserve affordable housing and be able to afford to live in cities. … All states and municipalities need to have this in their arsenal for people to be able to own and to stay” in their communities.
Portland Mayor Kate Snyder was one of two council members who opposed awarding the Douglass Street property to Maine Cooperative Development Partners, primarily because their financing strategy would delay construction and occupancy. Instead, she and City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones supported a proposal by Avesta Housing and developer Jack Soley, a team that already had financing lined up to begin their project.
“We have very limited experience in Maine with limited equity co-ops,” Snyder said. “When we were contemplating Douglass Street, I knew the development team had already been chosen for Lambert Street and Portland would be given the opportunity to really see how this goes. That was part of my context: How do we do as much as possible as quickly as possible.”
Douglass Commons will also generate less revenue for the city and require a greater public subsidy.
Avesta offered the city $575,000 for the land compared to $475,000 from the co-op and estimated it would generate $13 million in property taxes over 30 years, as opposed to $3.7 million over 30 years. Douglass Commons will also require additional public support to be affordable. Its budget includes $371,608 in tax increment financing from the city, plus an additional $400,000 in funding from either the city’s housing trust or through its Community Development Block Grant program and another $750,000 in Brownfield funding.
City Councilor Tae Chong credited the council’s Housing Committee, led but former City Councilor Jill Duson, for its work on the co-op model over the last few years. Such a housing model will allow people, especially those earning between 60 and 100 percent of the area median income, to gain valuable experience owning and managing their units and building, without having to come up with a large down payment.
The area median income for Greater Portland in 2020 ranged from $70,630 for an individual to $100,900 for a family of four.
“It’s not a crazy, whacky scheme,” Chong said. “It’s been around for 50 years or more. It’s just new to Maine and new to Portland. And you’re not risking anything. We’re just trying to encourage the missing middle to get a fair chance to be able to stay in Portland and be able to afford it.”
The Greater Portland Community Land Trust and the Maine Cooperative Development Partners are using two different models and are in the early stages of planning.
Both would put residents in direct control of the management and maintenance at each property. Rents, or carrying costs, would be relatively stable, since the group would just be paying the mortgage on the property and building. But the residents, through a board of directors or homeowners association, could increase those charges to pay for other amenities, like gardens, or build a reserve for maintenance and other capital expenditures.
Zack Barowitz, treasurer of the land trust, said his group’s model would be similar to a condominium, where residents would purchase their unit and common areas would be managed by a homeowners association. But sales prices of the units would be more affordable that market-rate condos because the nonprofit will own the land, and therefore not pay property taxes, and will develop the project without charging typical developer’s fees.
“You shave a little off here and there and try to make it as affordable as possible,” Barowitz said.
The resale amount would also be limited to keep the unit affordable, although the value of the unit will likely increase according to inflation, he said. Details are still being worked out about where that additional value will go: to the owner, to the homeowners association, the land trust, or some combination of both.
The Maine Cooperative Development Partners is using a limited equity model.
The Lambert Village proposal calls for 20 single-family homes to be constructed during the first phase and 26 additional homes for a second phase. And Douglass Commons contemplates a 56-unit apartment building plus 52 limited equity cooperative units in seven separate buildings.
Brian Eng, a developer with Maine Cooperative Development Partners, said residents would need to purchase a share in the cooperative to live at either of its co-ops, rather than purchasing their unit. Early estimates indicate that a share could cost $10,000, though Eng said that number could change based on project costs. And he said it would be up to the co-op members to determine how much they want to allow their shares to appreciate in value.
About 20 families have expressed interest in both projects, which still need to secure formal agreements with the city, zone changes and then undergo site plan review and approval, Eng said.
“We firmly believe that, working hard on this and doing it the right way, we will be able to offer a home ownership opportunity to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access,” Eng said. “We have the ability to target the missing middle. Generally speaking, you end up cooperating with your neighbors more. You end up building communities that can become platforms for personal development.”
If Portland’s projects are successful, Eng said the group hopes to expand housing co-ops throughout the state, including Biddeford, Westbrook and Mount Desert Island.
The Raise-Op cooperative began in 2008 with a three-unit apartment on Maple Street in Lewiston, according to manager Crag Saddlemire. The co-op began to grow following a string of arsons in 2014, which he said displaced about 100 people and prompted the city to go on a demolition spree. The group operates three buildings with a total of 15 units and is currently raising money to build another apartment building, he said.
Since co-ops are managed by residents, Saddlemire said they can also be “a vehicle for social change” in addition to providing affordable housing opportunities. He said that from 2014 to 2017, market rents in the Lewiston Auburn region increased by as much as 35 percent. However, housing costs at the co-op increased only 5 percent, he said, allowing residents to save between $2,000 and $4,000 a year.
“At a minimum, it’s their means of affordable home ownership that removes the more individualistic profit-making component of the equation and just focuses on the common need of having safe, healthy homes and trying to save money in the operation of those homes,” Saddlemire said. “It also becomes an organization through which a lot more can be done to benefit the residents and the neighborhood around them.”
Saddlemire said the co-op is currently looking to build a new building, which is expected to cost around $3 million. He said the project has broad support in the community, from the more liberal people who see it as a way to foster racial and economic justice to more conservative people who applaud the ownership model and personal responsibility aspect.
He’s excited about the projects planned in Portland. “They’ve got a really bold and inspiring proposal and it’s great to see folks take it to that next level,” he said.
Saddlemire said turnover at the co-op is low. But nobody has to tell Fiston Mubalama that. He applied for a studio with the co-op when he was 19 years old. Nearly five years later, after updating his application, he was finally approved for a three-bedroom unit on Pierce Street, which he shares with his wife and sister-in-law.
Mubalama said all he had to do was put down an $800 refundable deposit to move in, and his rent is currently $785 a month. He no longer needs to harass his landlord to get things fixed.
“With the co-op, it’s way different, because we all look out for each other,” the 25-year-old said.
Abdi has been living in a building owned by Raise-Op since 2015. At the time, he and his wife were expecting twins and needed a larger apartment. He’s currently paying $766 a month for a three-bedroom place for himself, wife and five children.
Abdi said he didn’t know anything about housing co-ops when he first moved in, but has come to value the management structure. His family is part of a strong community. They have more control over maintaining their apartment buildings and the amount they pay monthly to live there.
With his wife now working as a nurse, Abdi said his family, which now includes five children, ages 5-13, are looking forward to purchasing their own home with the money they have been saving.
“Now that she’s finished going to school and our life is stable, we’re planning to buy a property in one or two years if we find the right property,” Adi said.
By Zachary Kussin
This article was originally published in the New York Post.
Jade Amaker (right) is in contract to buy a $79,000 one-bedroom apartment at 1015 Summit Ave. i
n The Bronx, an affordable co-op now home to four of the city's five least expensive listings.
Welcome to 1015 Summit Ave., home to four of NYC’s least-expensive abodes for sale.
According to listings portal StreetEasy, prices in the 38-unit building range from a $60,000 studio — which the site lists as the city’s cheapest apartment — to a $75,000 one-bedroom. At least six apartments there have listed since August, offering buyers a shockingly low-priced chance to own property in a city where people go broke to live in a shoebox.
“The minute I saw the listing and I saw that there was an open house, I went,” said Jade Amaker, 45, who works in the continuing medical education office at Columbia University and lives in Harlem. In September, she visited a one-bedroom unit in the building, in Highbridge, The Bronx. Just a week later, she submitted her $79,000 offer and is on track to close in January.
“I definitely feel like I was on my way of getting priced out of the city, and it was a scary feeling,” said the Bronx native. “I felt like I needed to do something to secure my future in the city and this was it.”
Just a 15-minute walk to the subway at Yankee Stadium, 1015 Summit is a Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-op, a source of affordable homeownership. Not regulated by the city, available apartments are advertised with income restrictions based on area median income set by individual co-op boards. At 1015 Summit, which is in a low-income area, earnings can’t be greater than $95,520 for one resident and $122,880 for a family of three. HDFC apartments are also intended for long-term living, not investment properties.
There are some 1,200 HDFC buildings in the city, which together house about 25,800 units below market rate. Near 1015 Summit, there’s an HDFC co-op where a one-bedroom apartment is listed for $130,000. Meanwhile, in Manhattan, a three-bedroom in an East Harlem HDFC co-op is listed for $850,000, and in Brooklyn, a two-bedroom in prime Williamsburg seeks $625,000.
1015 stands out for its prices well below $100,000.
“This is not something that frequently comes up in the market,” said appraiser Jonathan Miller, of Miller Samuel Real Estate. “It is not the norm.”
And thanks to those prices, prospective buyers have flocked to the building in recent months to eye its offerings.
“[Because of] COVID, it was like, boom,” said Kim McKeller, the building’s Brown Harris Stevens broker. “[People] want to make changes and now’s the time.”
Plus, due to a newly formed co-op board, changes are afoot in the entire building, said McKeller. “Owners] want to protect their investment, so they’re doing anything they can” to spruce up the space. There are plans to re-do the lobby, install a grand awning over the entryway and to make storage spaces and a small gym in the basement. Earlier this year, residents added seating and planters to an outdoor area to convert it into a shared yard.
“The building had never used the backyard and it blew my mind,” said Fernando Vega, 50, a resident and board member whose work in event production has been hit hard by the pandemic. Along with his husband, Andres Vega, 39, he renovated the outdoor space, which included painting a mural on the cinderblock wall.
Vega bought the apartment for $55,000 in 2017, and hopes others will make the decision to put down roots in the co-op even during uncertain times.
“It’s … something I’ve been proud of. It’s a big accomplishment and it’s the stuff that dreams are made of,” said Vega. “I have a place in New York City that I want to hold on to — and my forever home.”
By Dan Neumann
Originally published in The Beacon
Housing advocates hope that a plan approved this week in Portland will serve as a model for how other towns in Maine can build tenant power, control real estate speculation and create permanent affordable housing.
On Monday, the Portland City Council voted 5-4 to approve a plan by Maine Cooperative Development Partners and Szanton Company to build “Douglass Commons,” a limited-equity cooperative housing development, on Douglass Street in the city’s Libbytown neighborhood.
The plan calls for the construction of 56 rental units and 52 limited-equity cooperative units, which will be owned collectively by its residents.
The plan beat a competing bid by Avesta Housing and developer Jack Soley to create “Douglass Yards,” which proposed 40 apartments, 30 condos and 10 single-family homes.
Avesta’s proposal was supported by the council’s Economic Development Committee, but lost after Councilor Belinda Ray submitted an amendment giving the full council the chance to consider the Douglass Commons proposal, which she argued better addressed the city’s urgent need for middle-income housing.
Mayor Kate Snyder and Councilors Nick Mavodones, Justin Costa and Spencer Thibodeau opposed Ray’s amendment.
Douglass Commons will become Maine’s second multi-unit limited-equity co-op in an urban area.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” said Brian Eng, a developer with Maine Cooperative Development Partners. “We’re hoping what we put on the table here will get additional governmental support at the state and local level and be something we’ll be able to replicate throughout the state.”
A path to permanent affordable housing
Cooperative housing is not new. In the early 20th century, many housing co-ops were sponsored by unions to secure housing for their workers. In cities like Washington, D.C. in the post-war era, low-income Black residents were being displaced because of rising housing costs. Housing organizers there rehabilitated old buildings and converted them to resident ownership.
Julian Rowand — a specialist with the Cooperative Development Institute and a partner on Douglass Commons — grew up in one of the limited-equity co-ops created in D.C. in the 1970s. “The residents are the exclusive owners of the property. There’s no landlord,” Rowand explained.
Members purchase shares in the cooperative, which entitles them to a vote in the governance and management of the building. They pay monthly fees to cover the co-op’s expenses, such as mortgage payments, property taxes and maintenance.
They limit equity by placing resale restrictions on the units. This allows residents to build some equity while preventing them from flipping the residence for a profit windfall if the market is hot.
“The premise is that housing is a right, not a speculative investment. So, in that way, it’s a decommodification of housing,” Rowand said.
Cutting out the landlord and their motive to extract a profit means the co-op operates at cost. Residents are not subject to rent hikes when the landlord wants to match the rising rents of other properties in the area.
“The benefits can be pretty substantial. The most important one being that it empowers tenants to have more control over their own economic future,” said Craig Saddlemire, a founder of the Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, a collective of 50 residents including Indigenous people and immigrants who own fifteen housing units in Lewiston.
“Being able to participate in making decisions about your housing can provide a lot of stability,” said Saddlemire, who started the co-op in 2008 as a community organizer while a student at Bates College. “Learning how to use the cooperative organization to address your housing situation can also serve as a potential vehicle for even greater social change in the community.”
Raise-Op was the first multi-unit limited equity co-op to take off in an urban area in Maine. The co-op model has also grown in rural Maine by converting several mobile-home parks to resident ownership.
Saddlemire says the benefits of living in limited-equity co-ops grows over time. While housing may be built today that qualifies as affordable, there is no guarantee that same housing will still be affordable a few years down the road. Limited-equity co-ops, along with public housing, are paths to permanent affordable housing, he says.
“From 2014 to 2017, average market rents were going up between 10 to 35 percent,” he said, explaining that three- and four-bedroom apartments likely saw the largest percent increases as those are particularly scarce and sought after by working families. “For us, our operating costs went up five percent over the same time period, which is consistent with what inflation was for that time period.”
Housing for the ‘missing middle’
The residents of Sunset Terrace Mobile Home Park in Rockland and of Sunset Acres Mobile Home Park in Thomaston became the seventh and eighth resident-owned communities in Maine in 2016. | Courtesy Raise-Op
Portland’s Douglass Commons proposal seeks to fill the dearth of three- and four- bedroom apartments that larger families require, whereas the Avesta proposal sought to create mostly one-bedroom and studio apartments.
It also targets middle-income tenants, who until now have been neglected in the city’s affordable housing planning.
Douglass Commons set eligibility for incomes between 60 and 100 percent of Portland’s Area Median Income (AMI) — $90,810 for a family of three. Avesta’s eligibility for its proposed units was 100-120 percent AMI.
During the bidding process, Maine Cooperative Development Partners learned that none of the nearly 2,000 affordable housing units that the city has approved targets incomes between 60 and 100 percent AMI. Most are under 60 percent with a few in the 100-120 percent range.
“That 60 to 100 range is the missing middle. It’s the bulk of working people — teachers, city workers, for example — who want to stay in Portland but really can’t afford it,” Rowand said. “You have this very ironic situation where the people who work for the City of Portland can’t really afford to live in the City of Portland.”
Councilor Ray cited this “missing middle” on Monday in her statement of support for the Douglass Commons proposal. Councilor Tae Chong echoed Ray, saying that the fact that 57.1 percent of Portland voters supported the recent rent control ballot initiative indicates a deep concern about the lack of affordable housing in the city.
“You buy into the co-op and your rent doesn’t really change. It’s going to be more stable overtime,” Chong was quoted by the Portland Press Herald. “It creates more permanence for more families we’re hoping to attract. We don’t want to lose more kids.”
In the past, limited-equity co-ops have been able to grow in other cities as organized tenants pressured local politicians to pass laws such as D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act in 1980. TOPA gave tenants the right of first refusal on their building if their landlords want to sell.
Some cities, like Boston, are currently considering similar tenant-purchasing laws. Maine Cooperative Development Partners say they have been contacted by local housing authories in Westbrook, Biddeford and Mount Desert Island interested in co-ops.
“I think we are seeing a resurgence of ideas like cooperative housing and TOPA,” Rowand said. “Certainly, in this time of the pandemic, but even before too, issues of displacement, gentrification and affordability have come to the forefront. I think these recent ballot initiatives in Portland prove that there is appetite for this kind of thing with the general public.”
Rowand believes local officials must look to what cities like Boston are presently doing, and what other cities like D.C. did decades ago, if limited-equity co-ops are to flourish in Maine.
“In many cities, the model has turned into just trying to figure out how to incentivize developers with tax credits to build affordable housing. That has come in the place of working with grassroots housing organizations and supporting them from the ground up,” he said. “Communities in Maine should consider tenant-purchasing laws.”
In planning for permanent affordable housing, Saddlemire says that state and local officials must also consider leveling the playing field for self-organized tenants who are forced to compete with large commercial and nonprofit developers for capital and credit.
“We need to start creating funding mechanisms that are more friendly towards housing co-ops,” he said. “We’re structuring the programs in a very narrow way that only results in very large rental properties offering a period of affordability which will expire.”
Still, with the Portland City Council vote this week, the resident-owners at Raise-Op are glad to welcome new allies in to the cooperative housing movement.
“A lot of groups that have been interested in trying to start something but we haven’t seen anyone else get there,” Saddlemire said. “We really want to see the cooperative economy grow.”
Top photo: Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood | Corey Templeton, Creative Commons via Flickr
Every month PelotonLabs founder Liz Trice interviews a community member for The West End News. This month, to celebrate National Cooperative Month, Liz caught up with Julian Rowand of the Cooperative Development Institute to discuss cooperative housing.
How did you get involved with cooperatives?
When my sister and I were a year old, my parents were renting in Washington, D.C. and they got an eviction notice. The residents organized to purchase the building and created what became the first Limited Equity Coop in Washington D.C. My mother was the resident manager there from when I was 2 years old until I moved back to DC as an adult and took over her job.
So, I grew up in a coop, and that affected my work – community organizing around gentrification and displacement. The people who were my neighbors there when I was a kid are like family to me. People stay for decades in cooperatives, and people look out for one another. We eventually created a federation of limited equity cooperatives in D.C. And then I moved to Maine to work for the Cooperative Development Institute in 2019.
How do you help new cooperatives become established?
I work primarily with residents in manufactured housing communities, or mobile home parks, when they’re still owned by a landlord who decides to sell. Sometimes they’re retiring, or they’ve heard of us and care about the residents, and they approach us to see if we’d be interested. We reach out to residents and find out if they’d be interested in purchasing the housing community. And then we work with local banks to offer a competitive deal and we facilitate the transaction and train the residents to run the coop.
What’s the advantage of cooperative housing vs. renting?
When you’re an owner/member/resident, you have a say through democratic governance what improvements are made and whether to increase the rent. Nobody can sell the housing out from under you. As a coop owner, you’re invested in the care of your property and your relationships with your neighbors. Cooperative housing usually becomes more affordable over time because increases are based on actual costs and there’s no external landlord. People are often willing to volunteer on improvement projects, landscaping is a perfect example. People want to come and work on the grounds and the gardens.
Could any rental building convert to being a cooperative?
Yes. There’s one in Lewiston, Raise-Op coop. Where I grew up in Washington D.C., and in many other cities, that happens regularly. Ideally, Portland and other cities in Maine would enact Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) laws, where tenants have the opportunity to purchase a building that is going up for sale. TOPA requires owners to notify residents at least 30-60 days before the building goes on the open market to give them time to organize and present an offer. With some support, residents can organize and get financing. Massachusetts has laws requiring residents in manufactured housing communities to get notified. And Boston is considering a TOPA law that would apply to rental buildings. New Hampshire has very favorable laws for manufactured housing communities.
What does “Limited Equity” mean?
Limited Equity means that when you buy in, you pay a low price, and when you leave, the equity stays with the Coop, which is what makes it permanently affordable. Share prices are very affordable. Typically in a normal home purchase you need to have 10-15% of the value in cash. But in our manufactured housing communities the share price is often $100-$400. Something most people can save in a few months.
When you buy in, you’re agreeing to be an active member of a community – whether that’s volunteering on the board or on a committee and attending membership meetings. It’s also a different attitude towards housing, considering it more as a right than a financial investment. The cost of living in a cooperative is stable and becomes more affordable over time. So people are able to save and invest money.
Are there any new construction housing cooperatives in Maine?
There are two exciting new projects in Portland. The city council is voting whether to allow coops on two parcels of city land. One is at Lambert and Washington Avenue Extension and the other is at the former West School site on Douglass Street. It’s an important opportunity because cooperative housing is absolutely essential to addressing housing issues in urban areas. It’s big for residents to have an option to be owners and stay in the city. And it’s also big for the city to make good on its promise to expand affordable housing options. Cooperative housing has the extra benefit of giving renters the stability and governance that homeowners have and making them affordable for generations to come.
How can I support the creation of cooperative housing in Maine?
You can write or call your city councilor to support cooperative housing at Douglass Street. [City Council’s workshop was on November 5th and their meeting to vote on November 9th.] You can contact Maine Cooperative Development Partners. Or you can contact us at the Cooperative Development Institute. In Lewiston, RaiseOp is a great resource.
RESOURCESExamples of cooperative businesses in Maine: https://maine.coop/maine-co-ops/
Cooperative Development Institute: https://cdi.coop
RaiseOp in Lewiston: https://www.raiseop.com
Maine Cooperative Development Partners: https://www.mainecooperativehousing.com
By Maureen Milliken
A proposal that will include the city's second cooperative housing development came to the Portland City Council meeting as the dark horse Monday night, but left the winner after councilors said it addresses the need for middle-income housing.
A 108-unit project on Douglass Street, Douglass Commons, proposed by Maine Cooperative Development Partners and Szanton Co., will have 56 cooperative ownership units in several buildings on the 3.24-acre site where West School once stood. There will also be 52 apartments.
The council's Economic Development Committee in August recommended a different project, proposed by Avesta Housing, Hebert Construction and Jack Soley. The Douglass Yard development included a 40-unit apartment building, a 30-unit condominium building and 10 single-family homes.
But members of the Housing Committee said in July they favored the Szanton/Maine Cooperative project. So both were presented to the council for the go-ahead to enter into a purchase-and-sale agreement for the city land on Monday.
Councilors who supported the Douglass Commons proposal said its key difference was an aim to provide housing for the "missing middle" — those who can't afford the city's high housing prices, but make too much money to qualify for the limited amount of housing available to low-income residents.
"It's about pioneering affordable, stable housing for families,” Councilor Tae Chong said. The project is in Chong's district.
Councilor Belinda Ray, who made the motion to approve the Douglass Commons project, said it better addresses the city's housing needs. "Our middle is hollowing out," she said.
'Long-term affordable housing'"The city council's vote to proceed with the Douglass Commons cooperative housing project is a vote to support vibrant communities and long-term affordable housing ownership for Portland families who would be otherwise be pushed out by market-rate rentals," Julian Rowand, of the Cooperative Development Institute, told Mainebiz Tuesday. "It's huge win for current Libbytown residents."
The proposal had the support of the Libbytown Neighborhood Association, and Rowand said the "strong testimony" offered by those who lived in the area was critical.
"It's also an important first step toward the city's goal of offering important and proven affordable housing options, like limited-equity cooperative housing, in an effort to address the current housing crisis affecting Portland," he said.
The developers will pay the city $475,000 for the site near Exit 6B of Interstate 295. The site was a municipal dump before West School was built there in 1962. The school closed in 1997, and was torn down in 2015. The site needs a brownfields cleanup, and developers will also go before the planning board for zoning approval to increase density allowances.
The proposal is for a four-story 56-unit apartment building and 52 co-op, or limited equity ownership, homes in three three-story buildings with 12 units each and four two-story buildings with four units each.
The target residents are those who make 75-80% of Portland's area median income, which is $70,630 for a one-person household, $100,900 for a four-person housing and $117,044 for a six-person household. Some 85% of all the units, including the apartments, would be for those between 60% and 110% of the Portland AMI. Low-income tax credits will be issued to pay for the apartment construction, and a percentage of those will be reserved for those who meet the low-income threshold of 60% AMI or less.
CDI, which supports cooperative business initiatives, partnered with Maine Cooperative Development Partners on the project. Other partners in the group are developer Brian Eng, Matt Peters and Liz Trice, all principals; Andy Reicher, of the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board; BrightBuilt Homes, an affiliate of Kaplan Thompson Architects; Mike White, of Island Carpentry; Aceto Landscape Architects; and Acorn Engineering.
Maine Cooperative Development Partners said that it has more than 20 households of prospective residents, who have been meeting for more than a year. The group includes multiple established immigrant families who share a vision of mixed-income ownership housing with shared community facilities and outdoor space, the developer has told the city.
"The development team will continue to work with these residents to crystalize their vision for site design, for self-governance, and to
recruit more households." the proposal said.
The beauty of the projectThe group was also approved this summer for a similar development on Lambert Street in the North Deering neighborhood. That project will have up to 46 single-family homes on 13 acres that are now vacant.
Members of a co-op own the development as a whole, and then lease their home for a price that covers the overall mortgage, maintenance and other expenses. Co-op ownership, which is catching on the state largely in mobile home parks, is a cheaper way to own a home.
"That's the beauty of this project," Eng said, of Maine Cooperative Development Partners, told Mainebiz in August. "We're talking about new Americans, teachers, firefighters, people who can't afford to buy a house in Portland."
Both the Lambert and Douglass street lots became available earlier this year when the city put out a request for proposals to sell the property to developers who would build more housing, part of the city's plan to add 2,257 housing units by 2027.
"The number one motivation is the housing crisis we're feeling in Portland right now," said Eng. Eng is probably better known for larger commercial developments, like the $90 million Pearl Street Riverfront District on the former Maine Energy Recovery Co. site in Bidderford, with Jim Brady, of Fathom Cos.
The co-op housing concept isn't new, but it's relatively rare in Maine. Residents who are part of a co-op share ownership of the housing, which can be anything from apartments to single-family homes. The model is made possible through the state's Maine Cooperative Affordable Housing Act, which allows limited equity housing ownership and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development 213 Program, which insures cooperative housing mortgages.
Some notable projects are the 10 manufactured home communities in the state that are now resident-owned with help from ROC USA, which works with CDI, and Raise-Op, in Lewiston, where residents of three apartment buildings own 13 units. Raise-Op was recognized with a Grow Smart Growth Award last month for its cooperative housing apartment model.
Portland councilors will negotiate an agreement for more than 100 housing units at the site of the old West School.
BY MICHAEL KELLEY THE FORECASTER
A development team of Szanton Company and Maine Cooperative Development Partners proposes a 108-unit housing development for land the city now owns at 43 and 92 Douglass St.
PORTLAND — A divided City Council decided Monday to pursue selling the former site of West School on Douglass Street to a developer who plans to build a four-story, 56-unit apartment building and 52 co-units in several buildings on the property.
The Douglass Commons development would be a mix of affordable, workforce and market rate housing. The co-op part of the project would give those tenants a financial stake in ownership, even though they would not own their units.
The council will approve a final sales agreement with developer Szanton Company/Maine Cooperative Development Partners, which has offered $475,000 for the property, at a later date. A zoning change is needed before the project would be ready for Planning Board review.
Reaching a decision on a project was not easy.
This summer, the council’s Housing Committee and its Economic Development committee agreed that the city-owned land on Douglass Street was a prime spot for a housing development, but they disagreed on which of two proposed developments they preferred.
The Housing Committee favored the Douglass Commons project. The Economic Development Committee, however, voted in August in favor of a plan from Jack Soley, Avesta Housing and Hebert Construction. The Douglass Yards proposal included a 40-unit apartment building, a 30-unit condominium building and 10 single-family homes. The single-family houses would have room to add on an apartment if the owners wanted to do that.
The council was equally divided Monday, with Jill Duson, Kimberly Cook, Pious Ali, Belinda Ray and Tae Chong supporting Douglass Commons, and Councilors Nick Mavodones, Spencer Thibodeau, Justin Costa and Mayor Kate Snyder favoring Douglass Yards.
Councilor Tae Chong said he favored the Douglass Commons proposal because it could be more appealing for families, who would be attracted to living close to the city skate park, the Douglass Street athletic fields and Kiwanis Pool.
Chong, whose district includes the site, said he preferred the Douglass Commons proposal, which could bring in as many as 186 children to Portland Public Schools, because it is more family friendly. The property is close to the Douglass athletic fields, city skate park and Kiwanis Pool.
“For me it is about pioneering affordable, stable housing for families,” Chong said.
Councilor Belinda Ray said the Douglass Commons project will better provide housing for those earning between 60% and 120% of the area median income, which is $70,630 for an individual and $100,900 for a family of four.
“I see that proposal addressing our needs much better,” she said.
The Libbytown Neighborhood Association favored the Douglass Commons plan and neighbors Monday spoke in favor of it.
Jon Bradstreet, who has owned 73-75 Douglass St. since 2007, said while he had concerns about the size and scope of both projects, he backed the Douglass Commons proposal “due to conformity to the current neighborhood look” and the green space that separates the project site from existing houses.
Another Douglass Street resident, Charles O’Rourke, said the team behind the Douglass Commons proposal has “earned his confidence” because they have met with neighbors and made “meaningful adjustments based on community feedback.”
But Ali Malone of Craigie Street said she supported the Douglass Yards project because of the potential for the single-family homes to be able to expand, something she hopes other developers will take note of.
“This is an exciting model for the city that will create extra housing and give flexibility to families to grow into or out of units of varying size,” she said.
Jonathan Culley, owner of Redfern Properties and vice chairperson of the Avesta Board of Directors, argued that the Douglass Yards project makes more sense for the city because it is expected to generate $9.3 million more in tax revenue over a 30-year period and offered $100,000 more for the land.
Georges Budagu Makoko, publisher of the Amjambo Africa newspaper, said Avesta has had a long history providing housing for those who are new to the country.
“There are so many in the immigrant community that need affordable housing,” he said. “Avesta Housing has been providing that for them. I don’t know anyone that does a better job.”
Mavodones said the Douglass Yards proposal makes more financial sense for the city. Snyder said she favored it because it could be constructed faster and is not requesting money from the city’s Housing Fund, which supports the construction of affordable housing in the city.
“I keep coming back to this sense of urgency. I want to see the housing built as quickly as possible. I think we have a real sense of urgency here in the city of Portland,” she said.
While both projects had a final completion goal of summer 2023, the Douglass Yards project anticipated starting construction in 2021 and having the single-family homes and condos completed in spring 2022, around the time the Douglass Commons project was slated to start.
Often-overlooked housing programs and models can help working poor Maine families build the equity they need to weather financial storms.
BY TAE CHONG SPECIAL TO THE PRESS HERALD
Imagine that your family has no assets. Imagine that your family has had generations of little to no savings or other assets. Or perhaps imagine that you are a refugee or an asylum seeker who has arrived with just the clothes on your back. How do you save enough money to put 20 percent down to buy a $280,000 fixer-upper home in southern Maine? How do you save $60,000 when you are one car mishap or one minor medical emergency away from losing your life’s savings?
Let’s do some simple math with an imaginary family of two working parents with two children. Each parent is making $15 an hour, and each parent is working a full-time job with no medical benefits. $15 x (40-hour) jobs x 2 parents = $60,000.
The take-home pay after taxes, Medicare and Social Security is roughly $46,800. The rate for a joint tax return is 22 percent. Fair market rent for a three-bedroom apartment in Portland in 2020 is $1,982. $1,982 x 12 = $23,784 in rent. $46,800 – $23,784 = $23,016 left over.
The family now has $23,016 or $442 a week to spend on groceries, child care, health care, heat, clothing, cellphone, internet, utilities, car payments, insurance, gas, repairs and more. (Remember, each parent is working a 40-hour-a-week job. Now think, how is a single parent going to solve this problem with half the resources and more barriers?)
Many programs exist to help lift families out of poverty. Two need more attention and support: Family Self Sufficiency and Housing, which builds equity for its residents, and cooperative and land trust housing are two housing models that build equity for its tenants.
Family Self Sufficiency is a federal employment savings program for employed residents living in public or Section 8 housing. The guidelines are simple: If you work with your FSS case manager, receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and work to increase your income, you can begin to save.
Public housing residents and Section 8 recipients pay 30 percent of monthly adjusted income in rent. If their income increases, their rent increases. This is still true for FSS participants, but the difference in rent is put in your savings account, and if you complete your goals, after a year there are no restrictions on how it is used. You can use it for life emergencies, pay for college or keep saving and perhaps purchase a house.
Using simple math without adjusted monthly incomes, let’s say that the family with two working parents making $15 an hour lives in public or Section 8 housing and got new jobs because of an adult ed or a workforce program. Let’s say the parents are now making $18 an hour. Their rent at $15 was $1,560 a month, or $18,720 a year.
Now their rent is $1,872 a month, or $22,464 a year. $22,464 – $18,720 is $3,744 after one year. The $3,744 is theirs. Without FSS, that increase in rent would have gone to the landlord; instead, it is saved for the FSS participant.
Why is building assets important for families in poverty? Even in subsidized housing, families in poverty are in jeopardy of being food insecure, in health neglect and in financial instability. When families in poverty do not have assets, they resort to high-interest loans and/or same-day lending – or they may simply fail to pay their bills, thus affecting their credit scores, which could affect their employment options and limit their access to lower-interest-rate loans.
Other overlooked programs that help households in poverty build assets are cooperative housing and land trust housing. Participants in coops and land trusts are part owners of their developments. A portion of their rent over time builds equity and monetary value. In cooperatives, residents can borrow against their equity for emergency funds, college, purchasing a car and more.
Housing is not the end goal – self-sufficiency and a personal safety net are. If we want to tackle poverty and racial income and asset disparities, the math is simple: The poor need more assets to weather financial storms. Otherwise, they are stuck in a cycle of poverty and potentially lifelong renters. The cards are stacked against them, but these programs help to increase their odds of climbing out of poverty. Housing the poor needs to be more intentional, strategic and holistic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Tae Chong is a member of the Portland City Council, representing District 3.
Maine’s cooperatives, which connect people and communities to common interests, industries and goals, model a positive response to COVID’s impact.
By David Libby, CEO of Town & Country Federal Credit Union
For nearly two-thirds of my adult life, I have been involved with cooperatives. While I have always been filled with passion about the spirit of cooperatives, the events of the pandemic have caused me to not only have a deeper appreciation of cooperatives but of the meaning of cooperation.
Since March, many of us have seen or experienced challenges, losses and disappointments. We’ve watched local businesses we love struggle to survive and individuals face financial obstacles and burdens that many would consider overwhelming. Admittedly, COVID has had a profound impact on our psyche and spirit. However, rather than let it fill us with hopelessness and despair, I’d like to focus on the many ways it has brought us together in cooperative support of the communities we love, albeit socially distanced.
During the past six months, it has been gratifying to watch communities come together in cooperation to support local restaurants and businesses or place signs recognizing high school seniors on our lawns in a spirit of cooperation, whether we had a child graduating or not. We’ve pooled our resources to support frontline workers with meals and other gifts, and have seen countless other random acts of cooperation and kindness.
Reflecting on my own workplace, I am prouder than ever to work for and be a part of a not-for-profit financial cooperative. Our cooperative structure enabled us to create the first Crisis Assistance Relief Loan just days after the pandemic started and offer loan deferments and other forms of assistance to our member owners. Without hesitation, our volunteer board of directors, another benefit of the cooperative structure, supported our efforts to help members and the communities we serve in any way we could because it is our community, too. Cooperatives are not just in a community but also part of a community because they are owned by the people who live and work there.
The concept of cooperation is more powerful and more needed today than in any time in my recent memory. Cooperatives provide a significant positive economic benefit to and impact on their communities. For example, our cooperative structure saved 40,000 member-owners nearly $10 million last year through better rates and lower and fewer fees. Many re-invested those savings back into the community by shopping locally, building locally and giving locally. Overall, the financial benefit provided to the more than 750,000 Mainers who are part of a cooperative add up to hundreds of millions of dollars. The need for co-ops and the support they provide to the Maine economy should be embraced now more than ever.
In today’s world, people often complain about being disconnected. Cooperatives are the antidote to that because they help to connect people and communities to common interests, industries and goals. According to the Cooperative Development Institute, which supports and helps form and build cooperatives in the Northeast region, there are a variety of co-ops in Maine including financial, food, farming, electrical, dairy, fishing, housing, employee-owned businesses and others. The cooperative economy in Maine is not only alive and well but also growing, which means cooperation is growing, too. That’s a good thing.
This October will once again mark National Co-op Month in Maine and throughout the country. Let’s celebrate and highlight the important role that cooperatives and cooperation play in our communities. It represents what can be accomplished when we cooperate. Whether it’s joining a co-op that aligns with your values and interests, ordering takeout a little more frequently from local restaurants to show your support, arranging a socially distanced drive-by birthday celebration for a neighbor or friend, having someone who will listen to your financial challenges and offers ways to help, just to name a few.
While the past six months have, indeed, been trying, challenging and, at times, discouraging, let’s be energized in the spirit of cooperation. Cooperation is about coming together, most likely virtually these days, to make a difference, show support or to lend a hand. Get creative, get engaged, get cooperating! When we do, our community and our lives thrive!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Libby is president and CEO of Scarborough-based Town & Country Federal Credit Union, a not-for-profit financial cooperative with 40,000 member-owners.
Published 10/1/2020 in the Portland Press Herald
Published in the Portland Press Herald, Sept 17, 2020. By Julian Rowand.
As soon as next week, the Portland City Council will take a consequential vote on whether to move forward with its first housing cooperatives, on two pieces of land the city is selling for housing development. Selecting both of these cooperatives is an important step toward addressing housing insecurity and the shortage of suitable housing supply by diversifying the affordable housing options in Maine’s largest city.
Both cooperative proposals, Lambert Street and Douglass Street (Douglass Commons), have strong support from the City Council’s Housing Committee. The limited-equity housing cooperative model ensures permanent affordability and the stability of homeownership. This is particularly important in cities like Portland, where incomes do not grow proportionally with housing market prices and renewed investment favors more affluent demographics.
Housing cooperatives create the possibility for those born and raised in Portland to be able to remain in Portland, for those working in Portland to afford to own here, for those arriving in Maine seeking safe homes to find homes they can afford here and for our elderly to retire in the communities they have come to depend on.
The City Council has before them a crucial opportunity to support the stability of resident ownership and to pursue their goals of diversifying affordable-housing options for current residents of all ages, income levels and demographics by voting in favor of the Lambert Street Cooperative and Douglass Commons, the Douglass Street cooperative housing proposal. I strongly encourage them to take this important step.
cooperative development specialist, Cooperative Development Institute
See original letter in Press Herald.