BAR HARBOR, Maine — At a time of year when housing is most difficult to find on Mount Desert Island and throughout much of Maine, approximately 90 housing industry officials from across the country met Wednesday to discuss the challenges Americans face in finding affordable housing.
The daylong conference, sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Jack Kemp Foundation, was held Wednesday at College of the Atlantic.
Former Sen. George Mitchell, who owns a home on MDI and is a co-founder of BPC, helped host the event, which took place in COA’s Gates Center.
Most of the discussion Wednesday focused on how demographics are changing, both in Maine and nationwide, and how government programs can be adjusted to help low- and middle-income Americans find and keep affordable places to live.
The population of Maine and the country as a whole is getting older, officials noted, which is creating an overlap of issues when it comes to housing the elderly. The rising cost of health care, many officials said, is one reason why more needs to be done to help the elderly stay in their homes longer, rather than having to be cared for in expensive health care facilities.
“Just sending people to hospitals or nursing homes — we can’t afford it as a country,” said Ronald Terwilliger, a residential home developer who also is a past chairman of the Urban Land Institute and Habitat for Humanity. “We’ve got to find a better way.”
But, at the federal level, much could be done to better coordinate the multiple programs that serve this demographic, officials at the event said.
For example, the policies that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development might have for building an apartment complex for the elderly might be different than rules that Medicaid or Medicare might have for funds that could be used for the same project.
“Often there are barriers in the federal government,” said Barbara Fields, HUD’s New England regional administrator. She said HUD was working to “break down silos” that inhibit cooperation and coordination between federal agencies.
Peter Anastos, chairman of Maine State Housing Authority, said the federal government also should be more sensitive to cost when it awards construction contracts for federally funded housing projects.
Anastos, a private-sector housing developer, said he did not think such projects have to be built as cheaply as possible. Subsidized housing projects frequently need to be located near other services such as health care facilities or mass transportation which often results in them being built in urban areas where land is more expensive, or in the renovation of existing buildings, he said.
The loss of subsidized housing on MDI highlights a perennial problem on MDI, where employers such as Acadia Corp., Ocean Properties and The Jackson Laboratory have been concerned about the availability of affordable housing for their employees during the busy summer tourist season. The high demand for property on MDI, where many relatively wealthy people from outside Maine own summer homes, makes the availability of any kind of housing scarce each year from May through October.
MSHA acting Director Peter Merrill pointed out that there was an effort not too long ago to build workforce housing on MDI that ultimately failed. The Bar Harbor Housing Authority in 2008 built 31 energy-efficient homes off Knox Road, in a project called the Northeast Creek Neighborhood, but decided in 2010 to sell off most of the units to any interested buyer at market prices after Bar Harbor residents voted against subsidizing the project with a $1 million bond.
“It’s hard to find land and hard to get [subsidized housing projects] financed,” Merrill said.
But there are programs that do help qualified buyers find affordable housing on MDI, an example of which was celebrated Wednesday morning.
Officials with USDA, MSHA and Machias Savings Bank held a press conference at the Crooked Road home of Jen Harry and John Barnes, who bought their first home last month with the help from the USDA Rural Development housing program.
Barnes said that without getting the federally guaranteed loan, and financing assistance from MSHA, he and Harry might not have been able to buy a home in Bar Harbor. The working couple lived on MDI before moving away for a few years so Barnes could attend school in upstate New York.
They moved back to MDI a year ago and spent much of their time since then trying to find an affordable home to purchase. Harry has several part-time jobs and Barnes works for a Southwest Harbor building contractor.
“I think it was a huge help,” Barnes said of the help they got from the federal and state agencies. “It opened a huge door to us that wouldn’t have been opened to us otherwise.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.
An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about Ronald Terwilliger’s position with Habitat for Humanity and Urban Land Institute. He is past chairman, not current chairman, of both organizations.