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Housing on the Hill: A Correlation Between Homes and Community

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]unjoy Hill is a staple of the greater Portland era. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city; the Eastern Promenade has transformed over many years. For some time, it was seen as the rougher side of Portland, but many residents would say different. Folks who spent time on Munjoy Hill know that the area was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone.

There was once a misconception of the area being a rowdy haven for crime and drugs. While some of that was true, it was no more dangerous than any other area of Portland. Munjoy Hill throughout the better part of the 20th century formed into a tight-knit community where residents always watched each other’s backs.

Unlike the cost of living around the Eastern Prom; the beautiful, panoramic view is unchanging.  The neighborhood looks over Casco Bay where ships go by and ferries carry people to and from neighboring islands.

Many long-time residents could tell you, the Hill was once a place for lower income families to live. That has changed with rising property values; single family homes are still being sold, but only for those who want to pay upwards of $750,000 for a multi-unit home. Not exactly a middle income price.

Big developers have come around, and they’re building multi-unit homes, as well as converting older homes. This creates a rise in taxes for residents in the area near these condominiums.

The changes on the Hill largely come from such a strong desire of people to live there. It’s a pristine area that is unlike anything else that Portland has to offer. Of course people are jumping at the chance to live there and set up shops, bakeries, and restaurants.

Joan Macisso, a lifelong resident who raised six kids on Munjoy Hill over the period of 30 years has a particularly interesting view on the Portland housing market and the place that she has always called her home.

In 1950, when she had initially bought her property on Wilson Street, the house sold for $8,500 dollars. Today– she says her property would go for something in the price range of $525,000 or higher.

“It has a lot to do with people coming from out of state and people who have the money to offer such crazy prices. I don’t know how the market price got so high on some of these places,” said Macisso.

Finding a statistic on how many of these homeowners actually are from out of state is not easy. That being said; a better presumption could be made that such people from say New York or Massachusetts are renting out their properties during the fall, winter, and spring seasons and then living on Munjoy Hill during the most opportune time for superior weather– Summer.

Because properties are in higher demand and these condos are in or near desirable locations, their market values are soaring.

As for Macisso’s speculation on what may happen to the housing market on Munjoy Hill; Macisso said, “I think these prices are escalating so quickly, you look up the street” she said pointing to her neighbor’s house. “He said he won’t sell his for less than five hundred thousand. That’s a lot of money. The market is so out of whack that it will just drop someday.”

According to the Portland Press Herald article “Housing Market Eludes Millenials”; the regular young home renter, who is 35 or younger has an average of $5,380 in savings to afford a home in a location like Munjoy Hill.  Increases in value for these homes on the East End make it far more difficult for the everyday person to buy and own a home. A $100,000 dollar house being sold is not going to appeal to those buyers who can’t afford it.

As much as the Hill may have changed for the better; the downside is that the notion of a lower income family still having access to such a neighborhood is decreasing.

According to The Portland Press Herald video “The Gentrification of Munjoy Hill”,  some residents who have been there for years recognize the changes but embrace them because the changes are inviting so many new faces to view the area. Also, some shop-owners think that this gentrification, both in housing and cultural changes, have lessened robbery and drugs in the area. Something that clearly makes the neighborhoods more appealing for parents who have younger children living there. 

Most residents would beg to differ that crime was ever a strong problem on the hill. Talking to someone who had grown up on the hill during the ‘70s and ‘80s at a time where this supposed influx of drugs and crime took place, provided a very different picture.

Enter David Duffy, a former resident on the hill who is now a landlord and owns property in the area that serve as rental units. Duffy has lived on the Hill since childhood.

On the subject of crime on the Hill; Duffy said, “crime was never a burden in this area, but more of an urban legend. With the higher living standards and income of people now living on the Hill I would expect crime such as theft and robbery to rise. There are now more valuables to steal.”

A larger problem lately, he believes is the decrease of affordable housing in this once very reasonable neighborhood.

“Affordable housing is still there for the middle income people, but it is decreasing. Buildable land in Portland is scarce on the peninsula and city proper and the property that is available is purchased by developers for more profitable multi units. Buyers now have to look for older single homes of housing on the outskirts of the city,” said Duffy.

According to the Greater Portland Council of Government, from 2010 to 2014, 1,130 housing units were built in the city of Portland. Of those 1,130 units, 29% were being sold at a price that was reasonable for families with a median income.

“The increased development of condos on Munjoy Hill, in my opinion, is a result of rising property prices. The conversion of rental units to condos are driving up the rental market by decreasing the availability of rental units,” Duffy said.

 Duffy recognizes the demand for condominiums on the hill and has given some thought to potentially converting his rental properties into condominiums. That being said, he does see downsides to the prospect.

 “I have considered converting my rental units to condos; it would certainly be profitable, but I do not think I would like to deal with the City of Portland’s guidelines and red tape that comes with it,” said Duffy.

His appreciation for “The Hill” has not changed. The landscape may have morphed into something separate from what he remembers of his childhood, however, it still feels like home to Duffy.

To further add to that sentiment, he has little to no interest in selling the rental units under his ownership;  “I am not interested in selling at this time, I am too romantically involved with an area that was the greatest place with the greatest people to grow up and live with.”

Munjoy Hill may have developed and drastically changed pertaining to the affordability of what homeowners can and can’t afford, however, there is still no doubt a community present on the hill.

Fort Sumner Park sits atop of Munjoy Hill, if you are driving straight up the hill on Congress street, take a left on North street by Hilltop Superette (great food) and the Portland Observatory (great place to step back in history and check out the view). As you drive down this bustling street, keep looking left, Fort Sumner will soon catch your eye and you will be forced to stop in awe.

The view overlooks the entire city of Portland in one jaw-dropping panoramic shot. Recently, however, that view was at risk of being impacted negatively.

A  condominium property was proposed to be built on Sheridan Street directly below Fort Sumner, this building would have obstructed the view from the park.

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Munjoy Hill  community members were not in favor of the building which would infringe on the incredible view.

Belinda Ray of Portland’s City Council and resident of the city since 1992; has worked hard over the past several months worked hard to protect Fort Sumner Park; along with the park’s distinct overlook of the Portland skyline from development encroachments.  

 According to Ray’s blog post as of December 3rd,2016, the moratorium to prohibit building around East End parks, particularly Fort Sumner, has been passed.

Ray over email, further went on to comment on how proud she is of this tremendous achievement.

 “The council passed an ordinance that creates an overlay zone which limits the heights of new buildings, so they will not rise above the level of the park plaza. If you’ve ever enjoyed the view from Ft. Sumner, you know what a jewel it is in our city, and I am very pleased to have been able to help preserve it,” said Ray.

 She does acknowledge the concern for Munjoy Hill’s decrease in affordable housing  and did share ways in which the Portland City Council is working on making the Hill a more opportune area for middle income families.

“We have to increase our supply of housing in order to help bring down rents. This can be managed by allowing more density in certain areas of the city. In the years before I was elected, the city council worked to encourage the development of affordable and market rate housing. They did this by changing the zoning on Munjoy Hill to allow infill development. At present, city staff is reviewing the development  that has occurred since that change was made in order to make sure there have not been any unintended effects. The council also passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires larger developments to ensure that 10% of their units are affordable,” said Ray.

 As evidenced by Belinda Ray’s statement, there is active work being done by the Portland City Council to work on improving the affordable housing market.

“Today, the Hill is clearly a very desirable destination. I think people view it as safe, attractive, artsy, walkable, dynamic neighborhood,” said Ray.

 There is not a better sentence to sum up the Eastern Promenade. Munjoy Hill has evolved over time into something new, however, at the core of it’s evolution is the people who keep it together. The community members who have stuck around and continue to push to protect their parks and neighborhood establishments.

The housing market has taken an impact on the land, but it has not changed the spirits of those who live there.



One Comment

  1. Casey M-K Casey M-K April 4, 2017

    Great article and a very talented writer. My father’s family grew up on Munjoy Hill when it was at its prime for the “neighborhood” feeling where everybody knew everybody and it was family oriented. Although I agree the Eastern Promenade is a desirable destination, it is a shame the housing market makes it impossible for middle income families to live there. Munjoy Hill will always be a part of me and I can’t wait for my daughter to grow up being surrounded by family on the Hill and experiencing the Eastern Promenade as I have all these years.

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