6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Moving on

Last Wednesday’s Planning Board meeting in regard to accepting the proposal to convert the Pines Apartments into condominiums could be likened to putting a marshmallow on a turd and then asking the tenants to accept it as dessert. No matter how the attorney presented the owners’ reasoning for providing an opportunity for home ownership, though, it still stunk.

$109,000 for an apartment in "as is" condition, which the owners describe as affordable, I suppose, has to be appreciated in a relativistic sense, since houses in the surrounding area are selling for $180,000 and up. Of course there will be some updating to the outside property, according to the owners, who also said they’re planning on building a gazebo.

Imagine that, a gazebo! What a leisurely sit that will be as you watch the high school kids get out, or bask in the glow of the stadium lights during football season. I’m sure not many places can tout an amenity such as that. Of course, trash pick up, grounds keeping and snow plowing will still be provided. Provided? More like included as part of the expense that’s to be covered by the $170 a month condo fee.

Many of the residents didn’t see this as an opportunity for home ownership. Robert Coller, who spoke before the board, said he had been a home owner at one time, but ended up having to sell because of the continual increases in property taxes that forced him out of his home.

It is mind boggling to think of how many people are being impacted by this, of how many people are going to have to move out of their apartments, of how many people are not going to be able to remain in the area because there isn’t any other available housing that’s comparable or as affordable.

Civic leadership has never been one of Belfast's better qualities. Taking the Pines off the market for available apartments in the city can only have a negative impact on housing costs, especially since the MBNA apartment complex is also going condo. There just aren’t enough apartments in Belfast to absorb the loss.

“I understand where the residents are coming from,” said Board member Elizabeth Minor. “I’m getting priced out of Belfast, too. But we can only follow the laws of the city and state.”

Other members of the board sympathized with the tenants, who had hoped to change the outcome. But as Larry Gleeson said, “We’re constrained by what we can do here.”

City Planner Wayne Marshall said that their only role was to determine whether or not the proposal to convert the Pines Apartments into condominiums was a permitted use under city and state guidelines. Since they determined it was, they didn’t have any other choice except to approve the application. Only one board member abstained, who did so because he felt the issue of affordable housing continues not to be taken seriously.

When I walked home that night, I clearly understood the individual fates that the owners had predetermined for us, that human actions do have their effects on others, and that the consequences of their actions will be felt and argued for some time. After I got back to my place, I sat down on the couch and took in the quiet ambiance of my furnishings and decorations, and realized I’ll have to get busy real soon. It’s time to sort, tear down, throw out, donate, and pack up.

I’ve looked at few places already, and ended up walking away disheartened and discouraged. I love Belfast, the state, the beauty and easy pace of life, but I've never appreciated the hardship that seems to come with it. And since the rest of the state and New England seems to be both equally expensive and economically oppressive, I find myself considering other possibilities.

After looking at a small two-room apartment in town for $550 a month with no closets, I decided economic serfdom is not a good reason for staying here. It may be a necessary condition for living here, but it certainly isn’t a sufficient one. Thus, come the first of June, my cat and I are going to take a pass on what amounts to a life of peonage and move to Houston.

Scot Cunningham


Dear Pines Residents

Last year when the apartment complex I live in was bought by a couple of real estate investors, I knew it couldn’t be good.

It seems real estate investors today only get in on something if it promises a quick return on their money. Settling into a long term investment, such as what would be normally expected of an apartment complex, is anathema to their current business model. As I said to one of my neighbors, “Only two reasons why real estate investors would buy a complex like this. Either to upgrade the place and flip it, or to convert the apartments into condos.”

After the apartments were surveyed in January, I had a strong feeling the answer would be conversion. Sure enough, that’s exactly what the investors announced in a letter mailed to residents last week. Aside from mentioning the few minor improvements they made to the complex, and promising to continue to do so, they also announced that it is their intent “to convert the Pines apartments into condominiums within the next year.”

Belfast is not known for affordable rental housing, mostly because supply is limited. Most of what’s available for apartments can be found in houses and buildings that have been converted into apartments over the years. These places, when advertised, are described as either “spacious and clean,” or “newly renovated.” “Spacious and clean,” as in putting a marble in the corner of the living room floor and watching it roll to the middle, can be affordable, but “newly renovated” seldom is.

Apartment complexes, though, are few and far between. There’s an apartment complex for low-income people across the street from the hospital, and another ‘cross river, a few complexes for the elderly, and a complex built by MBNA for its employees—which, incidentally, is also going condo—but that’s about it.

Located across the street from the high school, the Pines consist of three two-story buildings with four apartments on each floor. It’s the only complex of its kind within city limits that rents to mid-income people who either work or are retired.

Most of the elderly who live here have retirement incomes that make then ineligible for low-income housing, but for some it isn’t enough to afford living in a retirement community. It is these people who are facing an even worse predicament.

“I can’t do this,” said the elderly lady who lives across the hall from me. “But I don’t know where else to go. I love Belfast. I have a lot of friends here. Where else will I be able to find something similar to what I have now? That’s as nice and as affordable?”

Indeed, that’s the million dollar question the Planning Board will be faced with on April 12, since taking a complex like this off the market can only exacerbate Belfast’s affordable housing crisis.

I look at the letter again, its friendly tone, its promise of making sure that the impact and disruption upon our lives will not be immediate, its reassurance that we will have plenty of time to either decide on purchasing our unit at a reduced rate, or in moving.

At the prices I’ve heard they’ll be asking, I doubt very many of the residents who live here, including myself, will be able to afford buying a condo with a mortgage of $800 or more a month. When you add in a $200 a month condo fee, taxes and insurance, that $800 or more swells to about $1300 a month. That right there, prices me and most of the other residents currently living here right out of the market.

It’s been a good three years here, but since my life has never been about staying in any one place too long, perhaps it is time to think about moving on. Where, though, I don’t know. I suppose I could find a smaller place here in town. Or try finding something similar in Rockland.

As I sit on the couch looking about the room, I’m struck by how much stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. Things. Lots of things, some purposeful and sentimental, but most not fulfilling any specific need except taking up space. The wine barrel used as a lamp table that’s in the corner of the room makes a nice decoration, but I don’t need it. Boxes of books and magazines I’ve read once but likely will never read again can be donated to the school library. Bags and bags of worn out or out of style clothes kept in the closet can also be donated or simply thrown out. At least that would be a start.

From there I can tackle each room and organize my “things” into three categories: must keep, must sell, and . . . just get rid of it, all of it, everything and anything that is of no value or use at all, sentimental or otherwise.

I sit down at the table and look out the window. It’s been raining all day, but with a drop in temperature, the rain has changed to a heavy wet snow with quarter sized flakes. Perhaps April is the cruelest month of the year, a time that promises both uncertainty and new beginnings. I grab my coat and head out the door, wondering about my choices as to where I might move should the planning board give its blessing.

S. L. Cunningham,
Village Soup Citizen, 4/12/06:25