Northland working to ease Portland housing crunch

Portland, Maine has a new mayor, and in case you missed it, Mayor Ethan Strimling says he wants to permit 2,000 new housing units within the next 5 years. Wow — ambitious! A big part of the need, according to an excellent series recently published by the Portland Press Herald, is reasonably priced rental units. (See “Welcome to Portland — NO VACANCY.”)

Northland will soon be contributing to the mayor’s effort, in a building we will be re-developing at 443 Congress Street. We’ll be adding about 30 reasonably priced apartments to the city’s housing stock. Reporter Ed Murphy, as part of the Press Herald’s recent series, interviewed Northland partner Josh Benthien:

Developer who experienced housing problem now turning offices into apartments

Story by Edward D. Murphy/ Staff Writer

Josh Benthien knows the difficulty in finding housing in downtown Portland for middle-income earners, a lesson he learned first-hand even before the market overheated in recent years.

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 1.13.25 PMBenthien moved from New York City to Portland in 2006 and, after living in Manhattan, he wanted to find a place in a downtown setting. He went apartment-hunting on the peninsula, which turned into a longer and more difficult process than he had anticipated.

He found there was housing for low-income people, but he earned too much to qualify. And, of course, there would have been no problem finding a place if he made a lot more money.

“The pricing just felt like there was no in-between,” said Benthien, who is now a partner at Northland Enterprises, a Portland-based development company.

It’s a problem that has only grown since Benthien last went apartment-hunting. And he and others worry that it could stifle Portland’s economic development, making it harder for companies to attract new employees and keep the ones they have.

Benthien said his experience factored into Northland Enterprises’ recent decision to convert the upper floors of the Clapp Memorial Building, a 1920s-era, seven-story office tower diagonally across from Monument Square, into apartments. The space had been offices until this summer, when a major tenant decided to move in search of more room.

He said the units – mostly studios and one-bedroom apartments, but with a handful of two-bedroom apartments possible – will be “reasonably priced, market-rate apartments.” Studios and one-bedrooms will rent for about $1,200 a month, heat included.

A few years ago, Northland bought a building on Shepley Street, which is downtown and not far from the Maine College of Art. Some of the units were leased to MECA for student housing, Benthien said, but the rest were advertised online and quickly rented out. “People were clamoring to live there. So we knew that there was something in the market that wasn’t being met,” he said.

A waiting list has already been started for the Clapp building, where apartments are expected to be available sometime in 2016, he said.

Benthien said the company hopes to accomplish three things by converting office space to apartments: fill a need, make money and help bring more people downtown.

“It feels good for a couple of reasons,” he said, and “it really hit home for me. When I moved here I remember walking down Congress Street at times and saying, ‘Where is everybody?’ ”