A Portland developer says he wants to turn a former monastery into 40 units of housing for newly arrived asylum seekers.

Josh Soley, 25, was already planning a boardinghouse-style project at the State Street building this summer when the number of new immigrants coming to Portland increased dramatically, overflowing city homeless shelters. Soley said Thursday that he will offer his rentals to people who are seeking asylum in the United States.

“Tons of my peers in the real estate industry are building high-end condos,” Soley said. “But there’s not a lot of people who really build on the lower end of the market, and I think there’s tremendous need for that.”

The city has not yet issued the necessary permits for the building, and it is unclear when the units would be available. But the end product will be similar to a boardinghouse, and at least two other developers have been working on similar projects to address the shortage of affordable apartments in Portland.

The project is privately funded and not built with government assistance, so Soley said he can decide what type of tenants he would like to accept and he can change direction in the future. He also plans to build workforce housing on an adjacent lot on Winter Street, which he is considering dedicating to tenants who are veterans.

The rooms in the former monastery will be available for singles and couples and Soley said they might not be the best fit for families with children. A large kitchen, living spaces and bathrooms will be shared by tenants.

“For a feeling of community to be effective, that’s important,” Soley said.

Papy Bongibo, president of Portland’s Congolese community, said many new immigrants are struggling to find housing in Maine and Soley’s project will help. He recently was given a tour of the historic building and posted on social media about the plan.

Josh Soley, who announced plans last summer to convert a former monastery on State Street into affordable housing, now says it would offer 40 units for newly arrived asylum seekers. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We’ve been losing families because they are going to Canada, or they end up leaving the city because there’s no affordable places for them to live,” Bongibo said. “When I heard about that, it was great. I really appreciate the developer.”

Bongibo said he hopes the building can ultimately accommodate families in addition to individuals and couples, because the new arrivals include many families with children.

“One of the biggest problems is to find an affordable place to live with your family,” he said. “They are hardworking people, and they really want to live here.”

Built as a private residence in 1807, the three-story home is in the Greek Revival style. The Catholic Church later purchased it for a girls’ school. In 1934, it became a monastery for The Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood, an order of nuns founded in Quebec. The last two nuns in the house moved in 2018 to another community in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Soley closed on the property in June for $1.66 million. He told the Portland Press Herald in July that he intended to renovate it as 39 single-occupancy rooms with shared bathrooms, kitchens and living spaces. He said his goal was to build housing for people who could not afford high rents in the city, and he mentioned the possibility of providing housing for recent asylum seekers.

While it is not unusual for asylum seekers to settle in Maine, the number of arrivals has increased. Over the summer, more than 400 people had arrived in Maine from African countries, including Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They fled violence and persecution, traveled to Central America and crossed the southern U.S. border. Then the families traveled by bus to Portland, which has a reputation as a safe and welcoming city. The city opened an emergency shelter at the Portland Expo, and officials helped those families find temporary or permanent housing in southern Maine by the end of the summer.

As the temperatures dropped, new arrivals again overwhelmed the local shelters. Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said 66 families – 231 people – have arrived in the last seven weeks. The city’s family shelter is at capacity, and 17 families stayed at an overflow shelter in a local gymnasium Wednesday night. Down the street from Soley’s housing project, St. Luke’s opened a temporary warming center for those asylum seekers who did not have anywhere to go during cold days.

It is not clear what the rents will be for the units. The asylum seekers do qualify for General Assistance vouchers to pay rent, but housing is scarce in the region. General Assistance is funded by the city and state and is a last-resort safety net for people who cannot afford basic necessities.

Soley said he has worked with people who use housing vouchers in the past, and he will set the rents so that GA recipients could use vouchers at the State Street building if they need to. Grondin said a room in a boardinghouse would be assessed like a studio for the purposes of General Assistance rent guidelines – $251 per week or $1,077 per month for a studio with heat and electricity.

Soley recalled visiting a tenant who was a recent immigrant from Somalia. The man kept an immaculate apartment and made coffee for their visit. He kept telling Soley, “Welcome to my home.”

“If I could have a whole building of people this happy to be here, that would make me really happy,” Soley said.

Soley launched his real estate company in 2018 and is the grandson of Joe Soley, a prominent Portland-area landlord known for purchasing many buildings in the Old Port before it became a shopping, drinking and dining mecca.

Josh Soley’s father, David, and his two uncles – Tim and Jack – co-founded East Brown Cow Management Inc., a Portland real estate management and development company. Tim Soley, who leads East Brown Cow, is now seeking new zoning rules that could allow him to build a 20- to 25-story building in the heart of the Old Port.


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