Seniors and working-class families living in a landmark Portland building are being forced from their homes by a developer who got massive public assistance to covert the former Nathan Clifford School into apartments five years ago. Kevin Bunker, head of the Portland-based firm Developers Collaborative, is now selling the one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments as condominiums, with price tags for the largest units well above half a million dollars.
One older couple was given less than six weeks to move out and find new housing in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and a request to extend their lease by three months was denied*. According to Bunker, two other tenants facing a May 31 deadline to vacate were granted extensions, but it appears that all the renters in the 22-unit building must be out by July 31 unless they can afford to buy their home this spring.
In 2013, Portland officials basically gave the historic school to Bunker for free — he paid $1 for the three-story building, which was designed in the early years of the 20th century by famed architect John Calvin Stevens. Bunker’s firm also got federal tax credits to reduce the expense of the renovation from classrooms to apartments, work that reportedly cost $7 million. The building also offers amenities including a gym, a library and garden space.
Portland native Will Nelligan’s parents are among those getting the boot. Nelligan said there’d been rumors about a condo conversion in recent months, which prompted his mother to e-mail Developers Collaborative in mid March seeking more information. She also expressed interest in making an offer to buy their unit if it were to be put up for sale, her son said.
Nelligan said his mother got no response to her inquiry until a letter dated April 21 arrived. It tersely informed her and her husband that they must vacate their home by May 31.
According to Nelligan, a management consultant who currently lives in San Francisco, he asked Developers Collaborative for a 90-day lease extension in order to give his parents, both of whom are seniors, more time to find suitable housing during the pandemic. Bunker refused to speak with him by phone, Nelligan said, instead directing him to the building’s property manager, Josh Trombley.
“Maine is past the worst of it,” Trombley said, according to Nelligan, referring to the COVID-19 crisis. “Why should COVID-19 interfere with a businessman’s right to sell his property?”
Trombley did not respond to requests for comment today.
In a May 20 Facebook post, Nelligan wrote, “This has nothing to do with Kevin’s right to sell what he owns. … This is about how we should treat people in moments of real and unprecedented crisis.
“I have never heard my parents as stressed and scared as they are now,” Nelligan continued. “One of them has an underlying health condition that could exacerbate the effects of a COVID-19 infection. They are in no position to search for housing or move in the midst of this emergency, let alone with just a few weeks of notice.”
In a statement provided to Mainer, Bunker said two of the three tenants whose leases were set to expire at the end of this month were given an option to extend their lease, at least for a couple months. He did not identity the tenants, but said the third unit “needed significant repairs prior to the sale, precluding that lease to be further extended.”
According to Bunker, all tenants were notified on Jan. 17 that their leases would not be renewed this year. Those leases expire between April 30 and July 31. “As the situation develops, DC may be offering similar extensions, including for tenants whose leases expire on June 30, and who have not chosen or are unable yet to move,” Bunker wrote.
When the city gave Bunker’s team the property in 2013, there was no substantive discussion in public or in the press about the units becoming condos. John Egan, the chief investment officer for Coastal Enterprises, Inc., a community-development organization that helped Developers Collaborative finance the project, said he’s “pretty sure there was always a plan for [the units] to be sold eventually.”
Egan added, “I’m not sure who might have been in on those conversations, but it wasn’t any kind of a secret.” According to Egan, the use of federal tax credits required Bunker’s company to wait five years before the apartments could be sold. “I’m not surprised that at this point they’re starting to sell units,” Egan said.
State Rep. Mike Brennan was Portland’s mayor in May of 2015, when the city celebrated the opening of the Nathan Clifford Residences. Brennan could not be reached for comment today. Ed Suslovic was the city councilor for the Oakdale neighborhood — where the former elementary school is located, not far from the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus — and was a big proponent of Bunker’s project. Suslovic did not return a call seeking comment.
John Anton, an affordable-housing developer who served on the City Council at the time, said “it wasn’t a secret” that condos were in the cards. But he called the choice to give the property to Bunker’s group “a disappointing public policy decision,” since creating affordable rental units was a “much more pressing need.”
The condo sales are being handled by Ed Gardner of Portland-based Gardner Real Estate Group. The two two-bedroom units currently on the market are listed for $451,400 and $410,700.
Gardner said no significant work has been necessary to convert the apartments into condos, because they were built with “condo-grade materials.” Gardner also said tenants were given a “right of first refusal” to purchase their units, and that a few of them have expressed interest and made offers.
Nelligan said his parents do not recall receiving notice in January that the property was being converted to condos, and they were not given an option to buy their home. But he also said such an offer would be beside the point.
Bunker is “forcing Nathan Clifford residents to search for new housing in the middle of a state of emergency so he can sell their homes as quickly as possible,” said Nelligan. “He is trading their safety for his profits — asking them to risk themselves so he can make hundreds of thousands of dollars in July rather than September.”
“We are in a different world now,” Nelligan continued. “An important and uncontroversial principle of this moment … is that everyone should be secure in their shelter. … Kevin Bunker is blatantly flouting that principle. Mainers in the Nathan Clifford building and all across Portland are less safe because of what Kevin is doing. He should be ashamed of himself. More importantly, he should be stopped.”
City Councilor Pious Ali attempted to broker a compromise between Nelligan and Bunker today, by which Bunker would grant Nelligan’s parents an extension in exchange for Nelligan removing his Facebook post criticizing the developer. But Ali said those negotiations broke down, in part because the post, which was widely shared, has already sparked controversy in the community.
Five years ago, then-Mayor Brennan made a statement about the Nathan Clifford project that now drips with unintended irony. “For years and years, this building served the community and the thousands of students that walked through its hallways,” he said, as quoted by the Bangor Daily News. “Now, a whole new generation of people will have a completely different experience.”
*UPDATE: On May 24, Will Nelligan announced that Bunker has agreed to give his parents a 90-day extension on their eviction. According to Nelligan, Portland City Manager Jon Jennings brokered the compromise.