Regional planners raise money for small house communities to house asylum seekers

A regional planning agency is raising money to create several communities of tiny houses for asylum seekers, saying the initiative will be cheaper and more efficient than the current practice of providing hotel rooms.

Communities would also include on-site social services and legal assistance for residents.

The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a coalition of 25 communities, will officially announce the fundraising campaign on Thursday.

GPCOG Regional Partnerships Director Belinda Ray said the agency plans to buy 200 small houses, complete with bathrooms and kitchens, from a Canadian manufacturing company to serve as transitional housing communities on sites yet to be built. select in the metropolitan area. The size of the communities may vary depending on the capacities of the host communities.

“You’re trying to create a place where providers can come in and (serve) a large population of people at once, and then create transitional housing around it,” Ray said. “That way you don’t rely on hotels, which are incredibly expensive and scattered all over the place.”

Ray said the group envisions about six locations in four communities where the units could be set up, as well as some sort of community center or drop-in, to house support services, such as translation, legal aid and medical help. She said the agency is considering other ideas and locations as they come up. Ray wouldn’t identify potential sites.

Ray said the council hopes to raise at least $1.5 million, which would help leverage additional public and private investment. She estimates that it will take about $20 million to buy and install the houses and make the necessary infrastructure improvements. And she said the size of each community would be determined in partnership with city and school leaders.

Portland has become an increasingly popular destination for people from other countries, primarily from sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, who come to the United States seeking asylum from political, personal, or religious persecution. According to government officials, many asylum seekers are educated professionals willing to work. But they cannot apply for a work permit for at least six months after filing their asylum application, so they are often dependent on public assistance.

According to the council of governments, families seeking asylum are fleeing violence, human rights abuses and armed conflict in their country of origin. Their arrival in Maine is part of an overall population shift. The war in Ukraine and protracted conflicts in African countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, are among the factors behind the high figures, the agency said.

In 2019, hundreds of asylum seekers arrived in Portland unexpectedly from the US southern border, prompting the city to use Expo Portland as an emergency shelter. The community stepped up to help, donated money and found accommodation, thanks in part to the governments council’s efforts to organize a stay-at-home program.

ASYLUM SEEKERS CONTINUE TO ARRIVE

Asylum seekers have continued to arrive in Portland, despite the pandemic and a growing housing crisis. On Wednesday, Portland officials said the city served 290 families, totaling 1,002 people. The vast majority — 270 families, totaling 943 people — were staying in federally funded hotels.

Ray noted that federal funding for hotel rooms is only available through October. If it expires, municipalities have expressed concerns about their ability to afford hotel costs, which the GPCOG says is about $12,000 per month per family, including room and of food.

Nomad Micro Homes, based in Vancouver, Canada, makes modular homes – complete with kitchens – that cost around $45,000 and can be erected in a day. The unit is among those being considered by the Greater Portland Council of Governments to house asylum seekers. Image courtesy of Nomad Micro Homes

By contrast, Ray said rent for tiny homes would be around $500 a month for utilities, property management, and maintenance, not including upfront construction costs. Assuming a monthly food allowance of $835 for a family of four, monthly costs would be around $1,300, she said.

The GPCOG estimated that the annual first-year savings, including unit cost, would be $3 million over hotel costs. For subsequent years, the savings would amount to $30 million annually.

Mufalo Chitam, executive director of the Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, which helps provide services and find housing for asylum seekers currently staying in hotel rooms, has been looking for better ways to serve residents of Greater Portland . That’s how she learned about efforts in Phoenix to create a small community of tiny homes for newcomers with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Chitam recalled how in 2019 they were able to secure around two dozen homes in Brunswick for asylum seekers. These homes, she said, were on the same street and near services such as grocery stores, hospitals and schools, and a nearby community center became a place for new Mainers to learn about life. ‘English.

“It creates community so people don’t have to feel alone,” Chitam said.

This model has not only helped to make asylum seekers more comfortable and better able to integrate into the community, she said, but it has also made it easier and more effective to help. service providers. Right now, she said, service providers are struggling to serve people who are staying at five or six different hotels.

“It’s going to reduce the burden on municipalities as well as service providers to cater to new arrivals because you can do it very efficiently,” Chitam said. “It’s about centering people and putting resources and service providers around them so people don’t have to walk to 10 different places to find services. Services come to them.

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

Chitam hopes people will view their donation to the effort as an investment – ​​an investment that will be repaid by recipients once they are able to work and bring their culture and experiences to their new communities.

“I hope people can react positively,” she said. “They could (give) money now to invest in these people, but the return of what these people are able to give back will be greater than what we invest in them.”

The transitional housing effort is separate from the state’s efforts to house asylum seekers.

In May, Greg Payne, the governor’s senior housing adviser, said the state was looking to develop housing for 140 asylum-seeking families in Portland, South Portland and Brunswick. He said the state would pay rent for up to two years, which he said should give families enough time to file their asylum claims and receive work authorization from the federal government and become more self-sufficient.

Payne suggested in an email Wednesday that the state was making progress, but had no additional information to release at this time.

The state was also helping Portland seek temporary emergency shelter for more than 200 homeless people currently staying in hotels. The temporary shelter would only be used until the city’s new homeless services center opens in Riverside in 2023. But city officials announced June 16 that they would not be able to move forward with the temporary shelter due to development rules included in the New Green Deal for Portland Ordinance enacted by voters in 2020.

A spokesman for the council of governments said it was considering buying more conventional modular homes from Maine manufacturers, but it would have taken too long because of backorders.

Instead, the organization is looking at units made by Nomad Micro Homes, based in Vancouver, Canada. The 357-square-foot units would each have a loft and a main floor with a kitchen and bathroom including a stand-up shower. They would cost around $45,000 each and could be installed in a day, once work on the site is complete.

Ray expects people to be allowed to stay in transitional housing for up to a year. That should give them enough time to get their work permits and more permanent accommodation, she said.

UNITS CAN BE REUSED

While the project is geared towards asylum seekers, Ray said the accommodations can last for decades and could be used to meet other labor needs in the future.

The Safe in Maine Fund will be administered by the council’s nonprofit arm, the Center for Regional Prosperity, which was founded in 2018 and is overseen by a five-member board. Past initiatives at the center include work on broadband, mobility and opioid abuse.

The Town of Westbrook donated $5,000 from Mayor Michael T. Foley’s provident fund.

“The City of Westbrook is thrilled to support the Safe in Maine Fund as we work with our region to help resettle new families coming to Maine,” Foley said in a written statement. “Working to provide transitional housing is key to providing safe and stable solutions while having more effective use of limited taxpayers’ money. We look forward to participating in these efforts and thank you to the Greater Portland Council of Government for bringing us all together. »

Portland officials, who called on state and regional leaders to take a more proactive role, also welcomed the initiative.

“It is imperative that we continue to work regionally and across the state to properly address this humanitarian crisis,” Portland Mayor Kate Snyder said in a written statement. “The City of Portland prides itself on being a welcoming city, but we can’t do it alone, so I would like to thank those who have and will contribute to this vital fund.”

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