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Parris Terraces affordable housing in Portland

Photograph by Portside Real Estate Group.

Breaking New Ground

Home Design

If you still wonder whether Portland is a real city, Jack Soley’s new Bayside development may convince you. Parris Terraces, a slate-gray, 23-unit condominium building with a four-story roofline like an unfinished Tetris puzzle, is a study in neo-urban design. It’s built to passive standards, with an interior as soundless as a church, six-foot-tall, super-insulated windows, and accents of chrome, native white cedar, and safety orange. At its northern corner, there’s a small garden with a terraced waterfall that doubles as an eco-friendly stormwater catch. Flanking the granite front steps, tidy lime-green ferns poke out of artfully weathered corten steel planters. But none of this is why Parris Terraces says “city” more than any Portland development in recent memory.

For that, look to the size of the one-bedroom units: Most of them clock in at 415 to 450 square feet.

That’s small. Like, Manhattan small.

But at $229,500 or less, that’s also something of a steal. Which might be why they were all under contract before the building was completed.

affordable housing in Portland Maine, Parris Terraces
Photograph by Kaplan Thompson Architects

According to Soley, a luxury developer and former Portland Planning Board member, Portland’s crowded housing market is wide open for a place like Parris Terraces — a place where middle-income Portlanders can own, walk or bike to work, be a part of the community. “As I was sitting on the planning board, I felt like every single meeting we had new developers coming in and they were doing one or the other, market rate or subsidized housing,” he recalls. “Nobody was paying any heed to the middle segment, which is essentially everyone else in Portland. So I said, ‘How can I do it?’ I realized the only way I can is by going very small.”

Soley says Parris Terraces was the most expensive residential project per square foot he’s ever been involved in because of the high number of kitchens and baths (the priciest part of a development). Though he declines to offer specifics, he does say he made a modest profit. Still, even to eke that out, Soley needed more than scale on his side. To encourage the development, for example, the city sold him the quarter-acre lot, a former Portland Public Works parking lot, for $175,000, a little more than half of its appraised value. Soley’s architect, Kaplan Thompson, and brokers at Portside Real Estate Group reduced their rates. And Soley did some of the detail work himself, like choosing light fixtures and making the fiber-cement apartment-number plates in his Portland woodshop. Finally, the building is partly subsidized by three slightly larger top-floor market-rate units. “You’re not going to make as much money” as building high-end units, Soley allows, “but with price points like this, there’s zero risk. We had a waiting list.”

Portland’s Parris Terraces is a rare middle-income housing development built without government subsidies. Developer Jack Soley made it work financially by keeping the units small. Photographs by Portside Real Estate Group. 

A middle-market condo development without any ongoing local, state, or federal subsidies is practically unheard of in Maine and beyond, and so Parris Terraces has inspired curiosity. Scarborough’s town manager, town planner, and economic development director recently toured the building, and Soley says he’s heard from interested developers from San Francisco and New York City.

Because Parris Terraces was unsubsidized, Soley couldn’t solicit income information from prospective buyers to make sure they met his target of no more than 120 percent of the median for the city (or, as of 2017, $68,950 for a single person). Instead, he and his brokers sifted through applications looking for area employees or local retirees, dismissing, for example, the Boston investor wanting to buy a whole floor. “If I’m a paralegal or a postal delivery carrier and I’m 25 years old and my parents are helping with the down payment, that’s pretty clear that I’m a first-time homeowner,” Soley says. That was his target audience. In the end, 17 of the 20 middle-income units sold to first-time buyers. Which meant Soley had a bunch of closings unlike any he’d ever experienced — no attorneys, no last-minute power plays, just a young, middle-class buyer sitting across the table. “Their palms are sweating, they’re all excited, they’re shaking,” he says. “I got hugs at the closings, which I’ve never gotten before.”

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