Maine’s island populations have been relatively stable over the last 10 years, but significant island challenges remain: They face aging populations, a lack of affordable housing for year-round islanders and a declining number of students.
We don’t worry about Maine’s islands in the summertime. The populations of the 15 islands that are still occupied all year multiply with the summer influx. Some summer residents are already moving out to enjoy another seasonal respite from the rush and traffic of the mainland.
The danger is in the possibility of some Maine islands becoming summer-only communities. Maintaining working waterfronts is essential not just for social and historic reasons, but for the good of the state’s economy.
Numbers gathered by the Island Institute show that from 1990 to 2010 island populations increased 5.7 percent, compared to 8.2 percent in the state. Growth happened in the Casco Bay and Penobscot Bay islands, compared with an overall decrease of 8.1 percent in the Downeast islands.
The Cranberry Isles, Swan’s Island and Islesboro have lost population, while Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, Matinicus, North Haven and Vinalhaven have shown increases.
People who live on Maine’s islands are more likely to be older than in the state as a whole. And island student enrollment decreased 11 percent since 2010, compared to a 6 percent decrease on the mainland.
The remedy is to attract new and younger year-round residents to take the place of those who retire or die. But as island property values skyrocket (they increased 166 percent since 2001, compared with 114 percent increase in the state), newcomers have a hard time finding a place to live.
Everything on an island costs more than on the mainland. Electricity rates are higher, and all supplies and equipment and most food have to come in by ferry or barge. And having enough affordable housing continues to be a priority. The Island Institute determined that a year-round islander earning a median salary can only afford 76 percent of the median island home price.
Islesboro, in Waldo County, is one of the islands that is tackling the accommodation challenge. The nonprofit Islesboro Affordable Property has been developing homes for rent or purchase at reasonable prices. Among them are two modular homes recently barged out to the island and installed on donated land. The venture, started in 1988, has already provided 14 housing units and sold eight of them to income-eligible people.
Affordable housing on Islesboro apparently has helped increase its year-round population from 566 in the 2010 census to 630 in 2011, according to the Island Institute.
Other islands have similar affordable housing projects. Together with a bountiful lobstering industry, they are a mainstay in sustaining their all-year populations.