By Alex Roth
The City of Portland, ME, participated in a Housing Supply Bootcamp hosted by the Housing Solutions Lab and Abt Associates in early 2023. The daylong, in-person session brought together city staff, development stakeholders, and elected officials to discuss the sources of Portland’s housing supply shortfall and identify and build consensus around possible solutions. Portland was also one of nine small and midsize cities that joined the Lab’s 2022 Peer Cities Network, which convened housing officials and staff to strategize with peers and policy experts on emerging and longstanding housing policy challenges. Senior Associate at Abt Associates Stephen Whitlow caught up with the City of Portland’s Director of Special Projects, Nell Donaldson, to share her experience participating in the Housing Supply Bootcamp.
The conversation (edited for clarity and length) is printed below.
Located on a peninsula in the Casco Bay along the coast of Southern Maine, Portland is Maine’s largest city, with a population of just over 68,000. The city saw a population increase of nearly three percent in the last decade and a nearly 12 percent increase in jobs between 2002 and 2017. But growth in housing units has not kept pace with demand, resulting in rising housing costs and increasing pressure around housing production.
In recent years, Portland has taken many steps to address the shortage of housing supply units and resulting affordability challenges, which worsened during the pandemic. In 2017, the Portland City Council adopted Portland’s Plan 2030, a comprehensive plan which identified a target of adding nearly 3,000 housing units by 2027. The city also launched a project called ReCode Portland, now in Phase II, an initiative to rewrite the city’s land use code based on its comprehensive plan. Portland has also had an inclusionary zoning policy since 2017 and recently faced a voter-led ballot referendum to increase the policy from ten percent of units to 25 percent of units at deeper levels of affordability. Despite implementing various policies and initiatives, including an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) policy and a strategy to increase density in commercial corridors, the city continues to navigate challenges as it seeks to increase housing supply and maintain affordability.
Stephen Whitlow (Abt Associates Senior Associate): Portland, ME, has been working with the Housing Solutions Lab for several months now. Can you briefly say why you were interested in working with the Lab and what that work has involved?
Nell Donaldson (Portland Director of Special Projects): We, like many communities across the country, have been working on housing policy from the programmatic and land use perspective for years. We felt that the Lab would help us look at this work in a more systematic way; we were hoping for some room to reflect on what we’ve done, what the data says about our progress, and to think critically about the tools that can help us continue moving our work forward. That’s why we applied to the 2022 Peer Cities Network.
We have certainly gotten many opportunities through the Network to reflect, develop our staff professionally, and access valuable data and tools. For instance, the Network provided us with a top-line analysis, based on Census data, of where we are with our housing stock. This encouraged us to build a more robust program with our own housing production data at the City of Portland. As a result, we’ve developed better data tracking systems and monitoring tools that we’re now deploying (and retroactively building for past years), which will set us up for better analysis on a variety of fronts moving forward.
Stephen: An idea that emerged as you were working with the Lab was to conduct a Housing Supply Bootcamp in Portland. What appealed to the City of Portland about holding the bootcamp, and what did you hope to accomplish?
Nell: There were a couple things that appealed to us about the bootcamp. We are actively working on housing-related land use policy right now, and we have been doing outreach in broad strokes for a while. However, we knew we wanted (and needed) to capture specific stakeholders around housing policy at some point, and this opportunity was a perfect fit.
The idea of getting a group together to talk about housing issues and solutions was appealing. We hear a lot about what the issues are, but we often hear people talking past each other. There was value in having everyone in the same room and allowing folks who are talking about these issues to hear each other.
The process also produced a number of actionable ideas that we can implement right off the bat. Since we’re currently working on our land use policy, we are now discussing questions that came directly out of the bootcamp, like “What do our neighborhood meeting requirements look like? Do they need to look how they do right now, or can we change those requirements to make housing development easier? What types of projects are we sending to the planning board, and can we change that?” Those are real, immediate policy questions that we can tackle now based on feedback we heard at the bootcamp.
“There was value in having everyone in the same room and allowing folks who are talking about these issues to hear each other. The process also produced a number of actionable ideas that we can implement right off the bat.”
-Nell Donaldson, Portland Director of Special Projects
Stephen: The bootcamp was facilitated by Lab and Abt staff, including Professor and Faculty Director at NYU Furman Center Vicki Been and Director of Housing and Community Initiatives at Abt Associates Jeff Lubell, and much of the day included discussions among city staff and external stakeholders, primarily from the development community. What was your reaction to those discussions and the bootcamp overall?
Nell: We had a mix of developers, some folks in housing finance, some involved in construction, architects, engineers, and a few local officials. In retrospect, developers may have been slightly overrepresented, and if we did a round two we might manage the balance a little differently, but by and large I think we got good feedback from a variety of perspectives.
Our team thought the bootcamp was great. The conversations we had between city staff and external stakeholders at the event were really positive and constructive (although there were differences in opinion at times). The conversations among city staff following the bootcamp have been great as well, and again, there are ideas from the event that we’re putting into practice right now, which feels really good. There’s more work to do, but it was positive all around.
Stephen: Lots of ideas emerged during the bootcamp, some of which were new, and some of which the city is already working on. Can you talk about next steps for the city to address housing supply constraints and how the bootcamp may be shaping those steps?
Nell: In our office, there’s a focus right now on land use policy work. There are things we heard at the bootcamp that we’re currently putting into draft revisions to the land use code, so that’s a real, concrete action coming out of the bootcamp, which is wonderful.
The ideas from the bootcamp will be summarized and shared, and we’re hoping to use this as a reference point moving forward, particularly for ideas that might require longer-term follow up work. For instance, the council members at the bootcamp have asked for a summary of findings and have been thinking about how they can pick up some of the ideas they heard and move forward with them.
Stephen: Finally, other cities may be interested in hosting a similar bootcamp. What would you encourage them to do to ensure that it is a successful event?
Nell: Depending on different communities and states of readiness, there are different ways to have this conversation. Our conversation was structured broadly, talking at a high level about barriers and potential solutions. I think there’s a second level of conversation that drills down a little more deeply and might be productive in a different way (or maybe this could be structured as part two!). For instance, we have a million follow up questions about zoning barriers and solutions, and could spend a whole day talking about that element of this question alone.
I would encourage other cities to be clear about what you want to get out of the bootcamp. If there are policy concepts or tools that your community is considering, make sure those are pursued through the lines of questioning so that you can get good input or feedback. I think if we had more time to think about this in advance, we might have set up the conversation around things we really wanted to drill down on. That said, going in with open arms was also really good for us.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Housing Supply Bootcamp or think your city might benefit from a similar opportunity, please contact Jess Wunsch, peer cities manager, at email@example.com.