September 30, 2013

Hope House developer builds bastion against homelessness

Richard Berman sees the effort to welcome and shelter our immigrants as a spiritual matter.

By Randy Billings
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - Richard Berman is not your typical developer.

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Richard Berman stands in front of the former church on Sherman Street in Portland that has been transformed into a shelter called Hope House.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Over the last 40 years, Berman has gained a reputation as a philanthropist, as well as a developer who values community engagement, "smart growth," historic preservation and affordable housing.

Berman is drawn to mysticism and meditation. He was born and raised Jewish, before turning to Eastern religions. He now attends St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Cape Elizabeth and serves on the Maine Council of Churches.

"Just because you're a real estate developer doesn't mean you're not spiritual," Berman quipped.

Next month, the Cape Elizabeth resident will turn 68 years old and steer a new course in his career. Berman says will "semi-retire" so he can turn more of his full-time attention to philanthropic endeavors, without having to worry about profit margins.

"I want to turn my talent and treasures to good use," Berman said. "I'm turning my attention to more spiritual matters like immigration and homelessness."

Berman was born and raised in Boston. He left the big city in 1970 to start a land architectural firm in Portland. He turned his attention to real estate development in 1985.

Berman's wife, Theresa, is a yoga instructor who also is drawn to Eastern spirituality. He has two sons and an adopted daughter from India.

As a developer, his projects have often preserved historic buildings and include converting the former Maine Youth Center in South Portland into the Brickhill Cottages and "The Castle."

He also spearheaded the renovation of the Chestnut Street Methodist Church in Portland, and is currently working with Portland to convert the 104-year-old Nathan Clifford School into housing.

Berman's first philanthropic development project is the Hope House, which will be located at 15 Sherman St. in the city's Parkside neighborhood. The old Lutheran church, built in 1898, will become a privately funded, temporary home and education center for asylum seekers.

Berman bought and is renovating the building at a cost of $420,000. He will lease it to Hope Acts, a nonprofit affiliated with the Hope Gateway Church, at no cost for the next five years.

Berman says the development is an experiment that could serve as a model for dealing with homelessness.

Typically, wealthy individuals and organizations offer donations to charities. However, Berman's vision is to create real estate investment trusts that can invest in projects to address immigration and homelessness.

Mark Swann, executive director of Preble Street, said Berman is a longtime financial supporter as well as a pioneer for offering preventive social work services outside of the shelter system.

In-house social work services offered at Unity Village in the Bayside neighborhood led to similar arrangements with the Portland Housing Authority, Avesta Housing, Westbrook Housing Authority and ultimately to housing-first developments like Preble Street's Logan Place and Florence House.

Berman not only sees a moral imperative in these issues, but an economic development opportunity as well.

"We need immigrants. We need growth," he said. "It's vital to stay open and loving of our immigrant community."

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings


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