Rental demand in Portland is through the roof

May 2, 2013 in Articles

Author: Randy Billings
Publication: Portland Press Herald

The city hopes to see at least 800 more apartments built as demand forces up rents

When Eva Bradford and her boyfriend began looking for an apartment in Portland's West End a few months ago, they didn't think the search would be that difficult.

Bradford, a 26-year-old medical student, and her boyfriend, a financial analyst, have a good rental history with references, a clean credit score and cash to pay the move-in costs upfront.

"We thought that would be a shoo-in for finding the right place," Bradford said.

But it hasn't been. The Biddeford couple is looking to relocate at the end of May, but they have to fight swarms of other prospective tenants just to view available apartments. They're even stretching their budgets to expand their housing options.

"We've contacted a lot of different landlords," she said. "We just don't get calls back."

Such is the state of Portland's rental market, where vacancy rates have dropped from 7.5 percent to roughly 2 percent over the last five years and the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment has risen from $850 to $1,050 over the last four years, according to landlord surveys. Current online listings show that rents are climbing even more in 2013.

The Portland rental market has been a hot topic, with the proposed "midtown" development poised to add 190 market-rate units in Bayside in the short term and 675 over a 10-year period, units that the project's developer argues are crucial to the city's future.

Whether the Portland rental market is truly as tight for tenants as surveys indicate, and how the market will be affected by the Bayside project, depends on whom you ask.

"I've been successful placing everyone," said Michael Smarc, a local rental agent who manages more than 75 units.

There are more than 17,000 rental units in Portland, according to Mary Davis, the city's housing director. Nearly 11,000 of those are on the peninsula.

The Maine Real Estate Development Association partners with real estate companies annually to collect rental information through landlord surveys. According to those surveys, vacancy rates have fallen drastically since the onset of the recession.

In 2007, landlords reported vacancy rates at roughly 7.5 percent. Those rates dropped to between 1 percent and 3 percent in 2012.

That's much lower than the rates beyond Greater Portland. Saco and Biddeford landlords reported a 10-15 percent vacancy rate last year, while those in Lewiston and Auburn reported a 15 percent vacancy rate.

Meanwhile, rents in Portland are rising along with demand. In 2008, landlords reported the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment as $850. Last year, they reported the average monthly rent was $1,050.

A quick review of apartment listings online, however, shows a more drastic increase. On April 26, the asking rent for a top-floor, two-bedroom apartment with laundry and parking in the West End was $1,750, and a two-bedroom apartment in the East End was listed for $1,325.

Demand for rental units increased as the housing market crashed in 2008, when people lost homes to foreclosures and lending for new buyers was tight, said Harper Lee Collins, a Re/Max Realtor.

Collins said the housing market has recovered in Maine, with current inventories being lower than they were in 2005. Property owners who rented their homes out of necessity are suddenly able to sell them, putting renters back into the market. That is still feeding the rental demand in Greater Portland, Collins said.

Maine's housing market recovery mirrors a national trend. Last December, there were about 1.8 million homes on the market, according to the National Association of Realtors. That's a little more than half of the 3 million homes that were on the market in December 2010.

As a Realtor, Collins focuses mostly on home sales, but she is often asked about rentals in Portland. She usually refers prospective tenants to Portland rental agents with a key piece of advice.

"I tell them to be a bulldog on a pant leg to get help," she said. "It's very tough out there right now."

Brit Vitalius of Vitalius Real Estate Group owns 20 rental units in Portland. When a West End studio apartment opened up, Vitalius said he had no problem finding a qualified tenant. In fact, he had too many.

He recently showed the studio to eight prospective tenants over the course of an hour. Six were qualified and would have made great tenants, he said.

Rather than draw a name from a hat, Vitalius went with the first person to apply, because she knew someone in the building and promptly provided a check. The 180-square-foot studio, the equivalent of a 12-by-15-foot room, was rented for $695.

"I probably could have asked for more," Vitalius said. "I wish I had more units."

Greg Shinberg is the local consultant for Miami-based Federated Cos., the "midtown" developer.

Shinberg sees a demand for new, market-rate housing in a city with an old housing stock. He has seen the demand for new market-rate units first-hand as part-owner of 645 Congress St. The 56-unit building has been full since the fall of 2010, six months after it opened, he said.

"There is still quite a bit of pent-up demand in Portland," Shinberg said. "There is just a funky cool to (Portland) that people enjoy."

The city has made increasing housing options a priority. A 2002 housing plan called for the creation of 3,000 new housing units in the city, with a goal of having 25 percent of the total number of housing units in Cumberland County.

The city has held steady at 24 percent of the units in the county, even though 1,949 units, including 912 rental units, have been added in the past decade, Davis said.

The city has invested $7 million to help create 672 of those units, Davis said.

Meanwhile, the city's housing plan calls for the full implementation of the Bayside vision of adding 800 units over five years with an eye toward three-bedroom rental units for families.

Shinberg said Federated is still working out the details, such as square footage and number of bedrooms, for the 675 units envisioned over the next decade.

The first phase of 190 units in a 165-foot-tall tower is expected to get under way later this year and will help alleviate the demand, he said.

But real estate professionals offered different assessments of the project's prospects for success and its impact on the local market, which is driven by young professionals and empty-nesters.

Collins said the developer needs to build units that are at least 1,200 square feet with in-house laundry to be successful.

But Vitalius, the president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said many of his prospective tenants are young "hipsters" who want to live in a two- or three-story building. High-rise apartments, like those planned in midtown, could push the apartments out of reach for many people looking to move to Portland, he said.

"It's going to be completely different than the units people are looking for," Vitalius said.

Some real estate professionals believe the rental market will cool down as the housing market heats up, but Shinberg said demand will always be high here.

"Portland is kind of a unique experience," Shinberg said, noting the coastal city's trails, restaurants, arts scene and its walkable neighborhoods. "(And) there are people who don't want the risk of ownership."

Development on $105 million Portland project could begin in June

May 2, 2013 in Articles

Author: Dennis Hoey
Publication: Portland Press Herald

When finished, phase one of The Forefront will have a 4,500-seat event center, office buildings, a hotel, a sports medicine facility, a parking garage and a restaurant.

The Libbytown section of Portland, looking up Park Avenue toward the I-295 overpass.

Development of the $105 million mixed-used project known as The Forefront at Thompson's Point could start in June, according to one of the partners in the firm that plans to make over the point of land that juts into the Fore River.

Christopher Thompson told about 60 people Tuesday night that the project, which was approved in June by the city's Planning Board, could take as long as 24 months to complete.

When finished, phase one of The Forefront will have a 4,500-seat event center that will host outdoor concerts in the summer and serve as home to the Maine Red Claws basketball team in the winter.

The complex also will have two office buildings, a hotel, a sports medicine facility, a 700-space parking garage and a restaurant, Thompson said.

"We have made tremendous progress," said Thompson, who told the audience that The Forefront will lead to several street and sidewalk improvements in the surrounding Libbytown neighborhood.

As part of the project, the city and the Maine Department of Transportation, along with the developer, were given a $3 million grant to design and construct traffic improvements in Libbytown.

The city is also considering several options -- such as speed tables, traffic circles and center islands -- to slow traffic on 11 side streets.

Most of the people who attended Tuesday's presentation at the Italian Heritage Center live on the streets, between Brighton Avenue and Congress Street.

"There is an awful lot going on in Libbytown, but I like to think that Libbytown is where it's at," said Edward Suslovic, the district's city councilor.

Suslovic said Tuesday's meeting was held to update Libbytown residents on all of the changes that are planned in their neighborhood, which is generally considered the streets off Park Avenue and Congress Street between Sewall Street and Gilman Street.

Traffic engineers said Thompson's Point Road will be rebuilt and widened from two to three lanes.

The road, which will connect The Forefront at Thompson's Point to the Fore River Parkway and Congress Street, will have an 8-foot-wide walking path.

Sewall Street will be improved to accommodate pedestrians.

New sidewalks and curbing will be installed, along with street lights.

Traffic engineers are also considering converting a section of Park Avenue and Congress Street -- between Denny's restaurant and St. John Street -- from one-way to two-way traffic.

Engineers said they are looking at redesigning and possibly removing some of the ramps that connect Libbytown to Interstate 295.

Suslovic said, "Some of these ramps are redundant (two ramps on Congress Street provide access to the northbound lanes).

"A lot of valuable land is being tied up. We have an opportunity to make these areas safer and to knit back the fabric of the neighborhood that used to exist here."

In the early 1970s, about 100 houses and apartment units were torn down to make way for the highway and interchange -- a project that historians say "cut Libbytown to shreds."

Naysayers are wrong about Portland’s building boom

April 1, 2013 in Articles

Publication: MaineBiz

What do two parking lots, a long-vacant office building, a junkyard, an under-utilized concrete public park and an abandoned warehousing complex have in common?

Each, thanks to some very capable and aggressive greater Portland developers, could be upgraded to usable commercial and living space within the next 12 months.

Support for commercial development and positive re-positioning of older inventory properties both seem to have increased since the recession. While cynics and NIMBYs will always make their concerns heard, I suggest the business community continues to project supportive voices, collectively and loudly. In years past, the reactionary attitude of a vocal minority has complicated or derailed incredible opportunities. Public support, whether via the media or town meetings, should be in favor of seeing reasonable projects happen.

Take, for example, the very active and well publicized hotel activity in downtown Portland. When J.B. Brown & Sons, East Brown Cow, Jim Brady and Rockbridge Capital each announced plans to add more than 400 hotel rooms in the coming year in separate projects, the immediate public reaction seemed to be "No, Portland can't handle that many rooms."

In my opinion, the focus should be on the vast, overall improvements to a tired, existing inventory.

For example, Brady is proposing to convert the former Portland Press Herald building, vacant for two years and a landmark along Congress Street, into a gorgeous boutique hotel. Congress Street is struggling commercially as office tenants are looking for newer inventory and retailers battle difficult vehicular traffic patterns and inconsistent foot traffic. A hotel development at this building would be an incredible boon for an area that, frankly, needs it.

J.B. Brown has broken ground on a new Courtyard by Marriott on Commercial Street. East Brown Cow has cranes in the air for the Canal Plaza Hotel, which will include a restaurant and more than 700 square feet of retail space. Each hotel is being built on what was a simple asphalt parking lot. Parking is a necessary convenience in the Old Port but, personally, I would rather see tourists and new businesses in town than snow-covered Chevys and Fords.

The Federated Cos. at the city-owned Bayside land and the Forefront at Thompson Point continue their efforts to attract anchor office tenants and break ground. Whether they are successful or not, there is no question these projects will add incredible value and life to stretches of our city that are industrial in nature and vastly underutilized.

Lastly, it baffles me that anyone would question Rockbridge's plans to transition Congress Square Plaza on High and Congress streets into hotel convention space. The plaza is far from valued "green-space"; rather, it is a concrete eyesore that currently attracts exactly the wrong kind of patronage and use.

The definition of development is growth and directed change. Responsible real estate development, of course, warrants careful consideration and reasonable questioning. But these projects that are currently in the pipeline are growing and changing our fine city for the better. To that end, they have earned and deserve our unwavering support.

Justin Lamontagne is a broker at NAI The Dunham Group in Portland. He can be reached at

Looking up on the Hill

February 25, 2013 in Articles

Author: Tom Bell
Publication: Portland Press Herald

After decades of decline, Munjoy Hill has become the city's most desirable neighborhood – with housing prices to match.

Developer gets OK to turn Portland landmark into hotel

February 7, 2013 in Articles

Author: Dennis Hoey
Publication: Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND – A developer won the approval he needed Wednesday night from Portland's Historic Preservation Board to convert a downtown landmark into a boutique hotel and restaurant.




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