2016-08-05 / Letters

Resident writes in solidarity with columnist

To the editor:

With regards to my family’s current housing situation and aspirations, I found your column, “Housing in So. Portland and Cape – up, up, and away,” incredibly timely. I moved to Ferry Village in 1995. I was 19 years old. I grew up in central Maine, but relocated to South Portland for reasons of practicality. Actually, I had been visiting the very house where I moved since 1992. My best friend, whose father was renting the house, and I had started a band in Boston, but decided to move back to his father’s rental. We eventually took over the house and to this day it serves as a bastion of unique art, music and resistance to status quo North American capitalist ideology. I digress.

Since that time, I have been working in and around Portland and South Portland as an artist, musician and currently, a high school teacher. I met my wife in this neighborhood and we now have two children ages 3 and 7. My son attends Small School and my daughter is about to begin preschool at Casco Bay Montessori. During this entire 21 years, I have been renting. Obviously, considering the three “professions” I listed above, I have lived on a very low income. Yet, my work has always involved the maintaining of good faith interpersonal relationships. Though I haven’t managed to make a financial killing at anything I have done, I have succeeded in and enjoyed creating and enriching local culture and community – a highly underpaid endeavor that has inadvertently made this area so coveted by those “I LOVE MAINE” types that you describe in your column. Much in the same vein, my wife is a self-employed seamstress providing local designers the opportunity to tout “locally produced” textiles as part of their marketing profile. Needless to say, we are in the low-income bracket. A search on Google produces an average median income for Portland of $44,487. When we add our incomes together we find ourselves somewhere around there.

Fortunately or unfortunately, over these past 21 years, I have organically, but unintentionally, put down roots in Portland and South Portland. For the first time in my life, I find myself identifying with a sense of place. With ease, when asked, “Where are you from?” I simply respond, “South Portland, Maine.” With that said, it’s very clear to me that when I answer that question it is not Willard Beach or Willard Square, Scratch Bakery or Portland’s plethora of new hipster breweries, restaurants, venues and bars that come to mind, but rather the tight-knit community of solid individuals and their children that I and my family have the pleasure to call our friends.

So why am I writing? To be honest, I got a little weepy after reading your column. I know the Kesslers quite well and I have followed their housing plight. Chris’s articulation of the “gravity of the issue” has recently become very apparent to my wife and I. Over the past few years, in an effort to deepen the roots we have established as individuals and as a family, my wife and I have been involved in the home buying process. What we slowly have come to realize is that the only affordable option is for us to leave South Portland. Our neighborhood and town have become unaffordable and unavailable. We are now at a point where we have to decide between continuing with the insecurity of renting and maintaining our position within the life-giving community that makes up our friends and family or to follow the discriminatory lending process and leave. At 40-years-old, with two kids in school, this decision is heart wrenching, an existential crisis. I shouldn’t be surprised at the position where I find myself. When you value people over place and time over money, eventually you will be displaced. That’s how our system works. You conclude your column by alluding to a “not for profit consortium or good neighbor credit association,” which, although sounding utopian, is exactly the direction our society needs to head to prevent the reduction of our neighborhoods to stand alone single family silos inhabited by individuals without a connection. Imagine the destruction that erosion wreaks upon soil without trees.

I guess I could end this response there. But, I think it’s important for others in our situation to know that they are not alone. Therefore, below, I explicate the home buying process as we have experienced thus far.

We are not necessarily new to the home buying process. In 2012, I applied for and received a Family Development Grant through Women, Work, Community, which provides a four to one savings match. After two years of saving, multiple money managing courses and a first-time homebuyer course I ended up with $10,000 to be used toward the buying of a house. Upon finishing the savings program, we made our first foray into the process of purchasing a home. In 2014, we met with the local bank that housed the grant account. At the time I was finishing my bachelors degree at USM and on my way to getting my teacher’s certification. The meeting was a harsh slap in the face. To make a long story short, the gist was that we could not afford to live in the town that we wanted to live, i.e. South Portland. This was when we were introduced to the USDA Rural Development loan, which is an incredible lending program that bars any possibility of purchase in South Portland or Portland.

We entered the meeting unsure as to whether or not we were ready, both mentally and financially, to buy a home. We left the meeting somewhat devastated and confirmed that “No, we were definitely not ready.” A year passed and I sought an extension on my grant. I finished my teacher education and earned my certification. I got my first teaching contract, a part-time position in the Portland School District. My wife’s business had been steadily growing along with our family, our children then 1 and 5 years old. We decided to give the home buying process another try. This time we selected a different local bank on the recommendation of a Realtor friend. With contract in hand, excellent credit scores, our savings and my grant we felt assured that the results would be different. This was in the summer of 2015. The news? The bank representative told us that since my wife was self-employed and I was beginning a new job teaching part-time (supposedly you need two consecutive years at the same institution) no underwriter would consider us. We left disillusioned. I received a second extension on my grant and we put our heads down for another year. Meanwhile, we watched as house after house in our neighborhood went on the market and was sold, the face of Ferry Village was changing right before our eyes and it was becoming very clear that time was not on our side.

In spring 2015, I finished my masters degree and secured another part-time job at a different school. Knowing that I needed two years of contract employment, we put our aspirations on hold and continued saving. I also received the final extension on my grant. They set May 2017 as the final date for me to use or lose the $10,000. In June, at the end of the school year I was recommended for rehire and I received my contract for the 2016-2017 school year. It was at this time that my wife and I thought it would be prudent to make another appointment with the bank. By no means did we have our hopes high, we were hardened from our previous experience, but we also knew that I was contracted for two years at the same school as we were required, we had the grant, and my wife’s income had been steady for the past two years. We were looking about as good as we could considering the reality of our employment and socioeconomic class.

In July, we made an appointment with the bank representative we had visited back in 2014. Long story short, because of the student debt that I had accumulated attaining my teacher’s certification we could not afford a conventional loan to buy in South Portland or Portland. “The rules on student loan debt have changed,” she said. Anyone on an income based repayment plan, which I was, would be required to calculate into your monthly debt to income ratio a monthly payment equal to 1 percent of your total student loan debt. For us, this was a death sentence. Basically, that 1 percent of my student loan debt halved the amount that we would have to spend on a mortgage. Once again, she directed toward the USDA Rural Development Direct loan. She went as far as calling the office and perqualifying us right there on the phone.

So this is exactly where we sit. We have halfheartedly applied for the USDA RD Direct loan. We started looking at houses in Bath. We have talked with other lenders who have told us bits and pieces alluding to the possibility of a FHA loan that won’t require that we account for my student debt, but that require 3.5 percent down, expensive PMI costs, etc. It’s difficult to explain the feeling of not being fit to compete in a competition in which you have no interest in competing. We want to remain here, but at what cost? I’m not 100 percent sure why I’m writing this response other than to express solidarity with your column’s recommendation that, “we must get more tangible support from local banks and financial institutions to come together as a group, to educate and to provide special financing options for (us) to stay as first time home buyers.” If this is to happen, it has to happen quick as it seems, at least in Ferry Village, that there will not be a lot of “us” left.

Chriss Sutherland South Portland

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