Nov. 28—A regional planning agency is relaunching its effort to raise money for transitional housing for asylum seekers as local governments grapple with an influx of newcomers amid a housing crisis.
The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a coalition of 25 towns and cities, is trying to fundraise $2 million of the total $43 million it hopes to get from local, state and federal government sources to provide 200 housing units.
"We have an opportunity to help families settle in our communities, reinvigorate our workforce and secure Maine's future and we can do it in a way that makes the best use of limited taxpayer resources," said Belinda Ray, director of strategic partnerships for GPCOG.
The project was originally announced in June but has yet to draw significant donations, with about $65,000 raised so far. Those funds would be combined with American Rescue Plan Act dollars, low-income housing tax credits and an anticipated $22 million in financing from MaineHousing.
Transitional housing supports people who are homeless, seeking asylum, leaving a domestic situation or who otherwise need temporary shelter — ideally for a year or less — as they search for permanent housing.
Ray said the project, called Safe in Maine, launched over the summer because two municipalities — Westbrook and Cape Elizabeth — came forward with donations. Since the launch, Ray said GPCOG has not been actively fundraising because the agency wanted to finalize the project details.
Now that more planning has been done, she said GPCOG is ready to ask other municipalities — and anyone else who's willing to donate — for help. "Really anyone who can contribute we are targeting," Ray said.
GPCOG and its partners on the project, which include real estate developer Developers Collaborative, already have a site in mind — near Riverside Street and Warren Avenue in Portland.
The proposal comes amid a housing crisis in Maine with record numbers of homeless people and asylum seekers. At a GPCOG executive committee meeting this month, Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West said the city is continuing to see asylum-seeking families and individuals arriving in need of shelter.
"I think the transitional housing piece or the temporary housing piece is one of the missing links, in my mind," West said. "We have a lot of people working on permanent housing. I know the state has been doing that, but this temporary housing piece is so important because the hotels just aren't working. They're too expensive."
West and other city officials did not respond to emails last week asking if Portland would help fund GPCOG's proposal.
The group originally was exploring whether tiny homes, such as Nomad Micro Homes out of Vancouver, could be used to provide temporary housing for asylum seekers.
Ray said the group is now looking instead at larger units that would more closely resemble traditional apartments because they make more sense for families, and tiny homes wouldn't necessarily be much faster to set up.
"You still have to do site work," she said. "You have to bring in utilities, pipe in plumbing and get everything through the permitting, zoning and planning process. So it still takes time to get everything up and running."
Most of the funding hasn't been secured yet, but Kevin Bunker, founder of Developers Collaborative, said he is confident that if they can work with GPCOG to pool some money through ARPA and the fundraising effort, the project could come together by utilizing the low-income housing tax credits and MaineHousing financing.
A spokesperson for MaineHousing said the agency isn't involved in the project yet, but Bunker said he has briefly discussed it with them. "I feel comfortable that, upon application, we would be able to negotiate a financing package that would work for the project," Bunker said in an email.
The housing could serve any family in need, though GPCOG believes many of the initial residents would be asylum seekers or new Mainers because they represent a large portion of the families currently staying in hotels. The target date for completing construction is May 2025, though some housing units could come available sooner, Ray said.
"This is one piece of the housing puzzle and it's a very necessary piece," she said. "Transitional housing is essential within our system. Of course we need more permanent housing for everyone, but this is where people land and regroup so they can then move to and maintain permanent housing."
The group was among several organizations that recently applied for pandemic relief funds from the city of Portland for housing projects.
The City Council voted to put $4.1 million in ARPA funds into the Jill C. Duson Housing Trust Fund, a municipal fund the city can use to help finance affordable housing developments. The trust fund now has more than $7 million in it, though Portland councilors are also considering whether to spend some of that money on Winchester Woods, a 48-unit affordable housing complex Avesta Housing is looking to develop in East Deering.
Ray said she is hopeful Portland will use some of the money to help with transitional housing, which would cost far less than sheltering people in hotels. Portland and community groups like The Opportunity Alliance and Prosperity Maine have been placing hundreds of asylum seekers and homeless people in hotels and have mostly relied on federal funds and General Assistance to cover the cost.
A hotel room can cost about $7,000 per month for a family, Ray said, whereas transitional housing units would cost between $1,200 to $1,500. With the federal emergency rental assistance program coming to an end, General Assistance programs are soon expected to pick up more of the tab.
"This would be a significant savings," Ray said.