YWCA strikes deal to sell Spring Street property

From women's shelter to art museum: the YWCA's building on Spring Street. (file photo/Chris Busby)

YWCA strikes deal to sell Spring Street property 
Portland Museum of Art wants former women’s shelter

By Chris Busby

In a complicated agreement announced today, the board of the Greater Portland YWCA has arranged to sell its shuttered women’s shelter, residence and recreation facility on Spring Street to the Portland Museum of Art for $1.45 million. 

As a condition of the deal, the non-profit museum will also put $900,000 into an account controlled by the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA), an agency that helps develop affordable housing projects. In turn, local developer Nathan Szanton and his financial partner, Bobby Monks, will build at least 33 residential units somewhere in Portland within the next two years, using the MSHA funding. 

This condition is intended to satisfy two legal requirements related to the demolition of housing at the Y. One is the covenant MSHA has on the Spring Street property that requires it to offer at least 15 beds to people in need for the next 30 years. The other is the city’s so-called housing replacement ordinance, which requires a developer who demolishes residential units to either build as many similar units elsewhere or pay into a city fund dedicated to affordable housing development.

Last year, the Y attempted to be released and exempted from these requirements due to its financial problems. The agency has debts to banks, creditors and former employees approaching or exceeding $2.5 million in total, according to documents provided by the board. 

The city housing law and MSHA covenant threatened to decrease the Spring Street property’s resale value, making it difficult for the Y to realize enough cash from a sale to pay its debts. The City Council, however, refused to waive the housing law’s requirement, rejecting the Y’s appeal that its property constitutes a “project of special merit” worthy of an exemption under the ordinance. 

MSHA was similarly disinclined to remove its covenant from the property’s deed. The state agency offered the YWCA $1.6 million to buy the property and preserve it as housing and shelter for the needy, but the Y’s board rejected that offer on grounds it was insufficient to cover its debts. 

Under this new agreement, expected to be approved by city planning and development director Lee Urban tomorrow, MSHA will arrange financing to close the gap between the $900,000 the museum is providing for Szanton’s future development and the project’s expected total cost, which is estimated to be about $2 million.

“This is clearly a win for housing, a win for the City, and a win for [the] Museum,” said Y board chairwoman Margaret Cleveland in the press announcement of the agreement. “We also believe, under the circumstances, that this is the best course for the YWCA’s creditors.”

Y officials had earlier threatened to declare bankruptcy if the city refused to exempt their property from its housing law. A bankruptcy filing would have put the property’s future in limbo, and would have been unlikely to result in the construction of new housing.

Not everyone was thrilled by the news. At this evening’s meeting of the City Council’s Housing Committee, several advocates for the homeless noted that the units Szanton and Monks intend to build will not necessarily serve the needs of the neediest women – those for whom the Y’s single-room units were the only option – and will fall far short of meting the demand for shelter created by the Y’s closure.

Mark Swann, executive director of the Preble Street Resource Center, noted that though Preble Street created a new women’s shelter last year to help counter the loss of beds at the Y, demand remains strong and Preble Street is struggling to accommodate it.

“We are stacking women up” at the shelter, he told the committee. Swann said the shelter has been averaging 40 women per night. Last night there were 47. 

City attorney Gary Wood and his staff have determined that there are only 33 housing units at the Y that must be replaced, according to Portland’s ordinance. That number has been in dispute, with other sources saying there are 50 or more units that exist and should qualify for replacement. 

“It’s not 33 units, it’s 68 people,” said Swann, citing a figure for the Y’s past nightly occupancy. He further noted that the Y provided shelter to hundreds of women in any given year.

Although a new 50-unit women’s shelter, called Florence House, is in the works, it won’t be completed for at least another two years, and Swann said it was planned before the YWCA closed.

It’s unclear where the new housing Szanton and Monks are planning will be constructed. Szanton said he has been compiling a list of potential sites, but has not yet chosen one for this project. Under the terms of the deal, at least 15 of the 33 units must be affordable for people with incomes below 50 percent of the median income for this area. 

The museum’s plans for the property are also yet to be determined. The museum’s executive board decided to buy it because they felt an opportunity to acquire land this close to the museum will not come again for decades, if not centuries. 

“This is a massive stretch for us,” board president Hans Underdahl told the city committee. But looking back, he said in the eyes of future museum officials, “we’d be derelict of we didn’t act.”

Leave a Reply