New women’s housing plan rises in wake of YWCA’s fall

The YWCA's Spring Street property, still in limbo. (photo/Chris Busby)

New women’s housing plan rises in wake of YWCA’s fall 
Museum of Art makes interest in Y property public 

By Chris Busby

Homeless women in need of transitional housing and social services may have lost the option of staying at the YWCA’s Spring Street facility, but a new housing project tailored to their needs is in the works. 

Avesta Housing, a non-profit Portland housing agency, is partnering with social-services provider Preble Street Resource Center to create Florence House, a 50-unit development that may be open by early 2009. The project is similar to Logan Place, a 30-unit transitional housing development the two organizations recently partnered to build and operate on Frederick Street, in the Libbytown neighborhood. 

Logan Place has been “an extraordinary success,” said Preble Street Director Mark Swann. Its focus on the roughly 20 percent of the homeless population who are chronically homeless – those living on the streets for years due to mental health and substance abuse problems – has had a big effect on the demand for shelter space at the city’s Oxford Street facility.

When Logan Place opened last year, Swann said the number of people seeking shelter at Oxford Street declined for the first time in two decades. Even more striking, the need to use “overflow” shelter space at the resource center, once routine, has been eliminated since Logan Place opened.

Women make up between 15 and 20 percent of the city’s homeless population. They are a “highly vulnerable group,” said Swann, “often victimized on the street, exploited, and very ill in general.” Florence House will meet their needs by offering social and health services and a range of housing, from emergency shelter to apartments. 

Until Florence House opens, Preble Street is seeking city permission to convert its day shelter into a women-only overnight shelter for about 30 people. Homeless women currently share shelter space with about 100 men at Oxford Street, a situation Swann called “unsafe and awful.”

Avesta President Dana Totman said Florence House is estimated to cost nearly $7 million to build. Federal and state housing funds are expected to cover the bulk of the cost, he said. Avesta is finalizing the purchase of a site for Florence House, and Totman said announcement of its location will likely be made next week.

Totman and Swann said plans for Florence House were in the works at least six months before the YWCA announced it was folding and closing its Spring Street facility. Although Avesta made an offer to buy the Spring Street property (an offer the Y’s board refused on grounds it was too low to cover their debts), Totman said that site was not considered a potential home for this new project.

Totman and Swann are among those who feel the Y’s property should not be exempt from the city’s housing replacement ordinance. [See “YWCA wants out of affordable housing law,” Dec. 29]. “This housing is critically important,” Totman told councilors during their Jan .3 meeting. 

In an interview today, Swann suggested the Y’s building could be converted to student or “workforce” housing. Even with Florence House in the works, “losing a big chunk of the housing stock right now is a big step backwards,” he said. 

Councilors did not discuss the Y’s exemption request on Wednesday. Instead, it was referred to the Council’s three-member Housing Committee, which is scheduled to discuss it Jan. 9. 

Several YWCA board members urged the Council to accept a deal whereby, in exchange for an exemption, the defunct non-profit would use proceeds from the Spring Street building’s sale to contribute over $400,000 toward affordable housing construction. 

And notably, a lawyer representing the Portland Museum of Art made the museum’s interest in the property public at Wednesday’s meeting. The attorney said the museum has no specific plan for the building yet, but said the need to pay the city for housing units demolished by redevelopment would prompt the museum to lower, and thus lose, its bid for the site. 

The property had previously been on the market for nearly $5 million, and a private appraisal conducted last year pegged its value at $4.75 million. The Y’s debts total about $2.5 million. The museum has not disclosed the amount of its offer, but sources say the institution is offering about $1.5 million for the land and building, just slightly more than the Maine State Housing Authority has offered.

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