PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- There is a growing gap between what Portland citizens can afford to rent and what apartments are actually available, and many people are moving farther out of the city to find an affordable place to live.

In Portland, the rental vacancy rate is between zero and two percent, according to Mark Adelson, the executive director of the Portland Housing Authority. He said a "healthy" rate for a city is between five and 10 percent.

In Bangor, the latest data from the U.S. census says the rental vacancy rate is 4.5, while in the entire state it was 7.2.

But numbers from the city of Portland indicate that a person who makes the median income cannot afford what the median apartment costs.

"The rent -- it doesn't meet. It doesn't match up anymore," said Heidi Hetz, who lives in Franklin Towers in Portland. "Even if you are working full time, you still have the heating, utilities, the rent -- it is it just makes it extremely difficult for the every day middle class or lower than middle-class person to be able to survive and pay for just the basics."

Franklin Towers is an affordable housing development operated by the Portland Housing Authority. She was on the waiting list for a year-and-a-half before she found out she, her son, and her ex-husband could move in.

"It's a little anxiety ridden, because you don't know where and whether you even have a spot to go to," said Hetz.

The Portland Housing Authority has 1000 apartments that it owns and manages in the city, with a waiting list of about 1500 people.

Executive Director Mark Adelson said the organization has about 120 apartment openings a year.
"That's not much help for those people that are on those waiting lists for years. Incomes do not keep up with the cost of housing. People need that housing and they feel fortunate to have it, so they stay," said Adelson.

To qualify for Section 8 housing, a person cannot make a gross income of more than $25,500 a year. A person who earns $12.26 an hour makes too much, and does not qualify.

"It's very difficult for them, and that's why families are doubling up, and they can't afford to pay $1200 for two bedrooms or $1400 for a three-bedroom," said Adelson.

Jeff Levine, the director of Planning and Urban Development for the city of Portland said the average one-bedroom apartment in Portland rents for about $960 per month.

A study by the Maine Real Estate and Development Association shows that developers are making high-end housing that the average person can not afford.

"The rent that they get for a one bedroom in a new development is about what a family of four can afford, said Levine. "There is a little bit of a gap between what is being produced by the market, and what the average person in the Portland area can afford."

Levine says roughly one-third of Portland's renting population is "rent-burdened," meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. He said many people are "driving until they qualify," meaning they drive farther and farther away from Portland until they can afford an apartment in that town or city.

A Portland Press Herald analysis of apartment listings in September and October of this year found the average two-bedroom apartment in Portland rents for more than $1,500 per month.

Meanwhile, the median income for a renter in Portland was just over $30,000 a year in 2014, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. At that income, with that average rent, a person in Portland would spend more than 60 percent of their income on rent.

"Over time, that's going to strain their ability to provide other things that they need -- transportation, help pay for college for the kids, good nutrition, other things that people need in order to live a good life," said Levine.

In October, the city council took another step in attacking this problem, passing a vote for inclusionary zoning. The new rule requires that 10 percent of the housing units in new developments of 10 units or more be affordable to middle-income earners.

"The more affordable apartments we have, the better everybody will be served. I know it feels like a burden to developers to do that, it's only fair if they are getting a density bonus it's only fair that they participate in developing affordable housing as well. It's one resource the city has, that they can offer out to help relieve some of the crisis out there," said Adelson.

"I personally feel the need to be 20 to 25%, not just 10%. 10% is not going to meet the need," said Hetz.

Hetz is on the waiting list for Avesta housing. Avesta is one of the largest non-profit affordable housing organizations in Maine. From January to September of 2015, requests for Avesta's apartments increased by 26 percent compared to the same period in 2014.

Hetz hopes she can get off the Avesta waiting list, to give her current government-subsidized housing to someone else, while she searches for seed money to start her small business.

"Our path will be able to change and we will be able to let go of this and give it to someone else who needs it."

Adelson said there has been a lack of new developments in recent years, which does not create supply commensurate to the demand. He said supply is a big first step in solving the issue.

"It's a big part of the solution because without the supply, renters don't have choice, and there's no competition in the market. When there's competition in the market, rents are moderated, and families have more choice. It's the most important part of the answer," said Adelson.

Adelson said finding opportunities and financing to build new developments is one of the biggest challenges.

Levine said the city's planning board is thinking about reforming and relaxing some of the zoning rules to allow for more apartments to be built.

"This is a very large challenge and I would be kidding myself if I said we knew we had all the answers for how to solve this challenge, but we tried to be as proactive and think about how to get ahead of the curve on housing policy. Are we going to get everything right? No. I don't think we will, but we are going to continue to look at solutions and try to make sure that we develop solutions but also allow the area to continue to grow and thrive," said Levine.