August 24, 2019
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Why it is so hard for midcoast residents to find a decent place to rent

BELFAST, Maine — Heightened demand for affordable places to live, sluggish housing development and an increase in recent years of seasonal and short-term rentals have combined to create to an apartment crunch along much of the Maine coast.

Recognizing the shortage, midcoast communities are looking for ways to convince more property owners and developers to bring new apartments and ease the strain.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Audra Caler-Bell, Rockland’s community development director and acting city manager, said. “There’s an increasing shortage of affordable housing, and that extends into workforce housing. We’re talking about people who are gainfully employed — teachers, shipyard workers — who are struggling to find and afford a decent place to live.”

When an apartment comes up for rent in the $600 to $900 range — what generally is considered an “affordable” rate — the response is frenzied. Landlords field dozens of calls, set up multiple walkthroughs and take their pick of tenant, often in the span of just a few days.

Those who miss out either get in line for the next one or settle for a less-than-ideal living situation. It’s a game that’s becoming all too familiar to current and hopeful renters in Belfast, Rockport, Camden, Rockland and elsewhere along the coast.

Kate Pendleton has settled into her new apartment, a nicely renovated one-bedroom unit in Belfast built above a converted two-bay garage next to her landlord’s home. It was a fight to get it but at $725 per month, heat included, it was a steal compared to others she’d seen.

“This was the first time I’d ever looked for a place in town — normally I’m out in the boonies,” the 21-year-old said during an interview at her apartment, a Charlie Brown-style Christmas tree perched in a nearby corner.

When her lease ended on her former apartment in Jackson, Pendleton decided she wanted to move closer to Belfast, where she works at the athenahealth call center — the city’s largest employer. After more than a month of searching, she ran out of time and had to move home temporarily with her mother, resulting in a 45-minute commute.

She said she wasn’t confident her wages — about $15 per hour — would allow her to comfortably afford the rents she was seeing during her lengthy apartment search. Rent ranged from $800 to over $1,000, and heating costs often weren’t included. Apartments that were affordable were in rough shape, she said.

Her search continued for two more months, until she heard a co-worker was eyeing a place a few miles from downtown. More than a dozen others had lined up to look at it. Pendleton got together a stack of papers including references, a resume, financial information, set up a meeting with the landlord and swept in to snatch the place up.

“I was sure that if I didn’t grab this one, another nice, affordable place might not come up for months,” Pendleton said, adding that she’s still on good terms with her co-worker. “The competitiveness of trying to find an apartment is one of the most stressful factors. It’s like a battle of the fittest.”

Pendleton isn’t alone in her struggles. Other friends of hers are in the midst of monthslong searches for places in the midcoast. Some are living with relatives while others have moved into apartments they can’t afford long term or run-down places with lower rents.

Jason Doppelt, 31, first moved to Maine from Kansas City there years ago. Back home, he rented a small studio apartment near the heart of the city for just $450 per month, complete with air conditioning and onsite laundry. He was easily able to afford it with wages he earned as a cook.

Three summers ago, he visited Maine in his travel trailer and fell in love, but he struggled to find year-round work as a chef and struggled even harder to find a place that cost roughly the same as what he had in Kansas City.

“I thought I could find something comparable,” he said. “Well, it didn’t work out that way.”

After living in his travel trailer for a summer, he went back to Missouri for the winter with his “tail tucked between his legs.” The next summer, he returned, living in a van during the warmest stretch of the year so he could afford rent at a friend’s cabin for the winter.

“Just coming up with first and last month’s rent for some of these places is incredibly tough, let alone keeping up with monthly rent and heat bills,” Doppelt said.

This year, he’s more settled, living in the basement of a house that he rents along with three friends, though he’d rather have his own place. But by settling for a basement room and living with roommates, he’s able to have a roof over his head year-round for just $300 per month.

When he first moved to Maine, he earned minimum wage in a kitchen job, bringing in about $250 per week. He made a little more cooking on schooners in the summer. Now, as a mechanic, he’s bringing in $450 per week. He says the wages in area just aren’t enough to support the types of rental prices he saw.

“I really like Maine, and I really want to stay here,” he said. “I want the midcoast to be my home, and I just have to find a way to make it work.”

In demand

Caler-Bell said this is a problem more municipal leaders along the midcoast are recognizing and starting to grapple with.

Caler-Bell said Rockland started looking at the issue after several local employers, notably Fisher Engineering, reported that employees were struggling to find decent places to rent in the area so they could start work. Some resorted to living out of their cars or commuting long distances, Caler-Bell said. Fisher officials declined to comment for this story.

“Pickings are slim. You’re paying a premium sometimes for housing that might not meet your needs,” Caler-Bell said.

Apartment unit prices in Waldo and Knox counties have long outpaced the earnings of many people who call the area home, according to annual reports from the Maine Housing Authority.

In Belfast, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in 2015 (the most recent report available) was $831 including utilities, according to Maine Housing. To afford that rent comfortably, a person should be making about $33,232, but the median income in Belfast is $23,689.

In Rockland, the average rent is higher — $1,007 per month — which a renter would need to earn $40,260 per year to afford, according to the housing agency. The median income among Rockland renters, however, is just over $30,000. Camden’s average two-bedroom rental runs around $925 per month. The median renter earns about $35,700, which is closer to the $37,000 income recommended to afford that rent.

Midcoast communities have become more of a draw in recent years, with a revival of downtowns and new industries popping up across Belfast, Rockland and Camden.

“We’re seeing an influx of new people, and we want more of these folks to be able to call Belfast home,” Wayne Marshall, Belfast’s city planner, said. Unfortunately, many are having to settle outside town or in rental situations that are less than ideal.

Marshall has been working for the city for 18 years, but in all that time he said he hasn’t seen a single market-rate, multifamily housing structure go up. Years ago, MBNA built a 46-unit housing complex off Crocker Road so its employees would have places to live. After that center closed about a decade ago, the apartments were sold and converted into condominiums.

Why the shortage?

Bennett Bricker, a Camden-based real estate broker, believes a big contributor is the fact that people in their 20s and 30s can’t afford to buy homes like they used to. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many lenders wouldn’t giving out mortgages unless the person had 20 percent down available before signing on to a mortgage.

“Many younger professionals don’t have $6,000 to $8,000 in the bank to make that first payment on a house anymore,” Bricker said.

In addition, some older homeowners are downsizing, selling their homes in favor of renting smaller properties.

“That creates much more demand than we’ve ever had,” Bricker said, and contributes to a frantic rental market, in which hopeful renters are climbing over one another to secure apartments.

It also stems from the number of people who only live in these towns for part of the year. If you’re looking to live in Belfast, for example, there are dozens of properties ranging from downtown lofts to entire furnished homes up for rent during winter months while the owners are away. But come spring, you have to search for another place, and competition among prospective renters gets intense.

Some property owners are repurposing former apartment units, rooms and rental homes, taking them off year-round listings and advertising them as weekly summer rentals, often using internet-based services such as Airbnb.

This causes concern for town officials, who worry that if the practices continue, some parts of town could become largely abandoned for chunks of the year.

“We don’t want Belfast to go dark,” Marshall said. “It’s critical that Belfast remains what it always has been — a community that has a wide range of people living and working here.”

Bricker said municipal policies also have played a role. Local zoning ordinances setting minimum lot sizes for multiunit housing has been a significant impediment to potential apartment developments in communities across the state, Bricker argued.

If an apartment developer can’t fit enough units on a lot to make the project economically feasible, they’re not going to move forward with a construction or redevelopment effort, he said.

“Some towns are starting to realize this is holding things back and making the rental situation more difficult,” Bricker said.

Encouraging expansion

Rockland has been focusing on finding solutions to the shortage. The city council is considering a series of sweeping zoning ordinance changes to encourage people to develop more units close to town.

The overhaul would reduce minimum lot size requirements, allow small secondary units (such as an above-garage apartment or guest house) on lots and reduce setbacks and road frontage requirements.

However, some in the community have said the changes would lead to the construction of small out-buildings between homes, causing some neighborhoods to become congested and changing the feel and aesthetics of others. Others worry that these new units will only lead to more short-term rentals that might not be made available to hopeful residents.

Caler-Bell said the city has been trying to tailor existing programs to help people with housing projects, making about $25,000 available for renovation and weatherization efforts through its housing rehabilitation assistance program. Traditionally this is targeted toward multifamily housing, but the city is seeking potential first-time homebuyers who want to purchase and fix up a place.

In Belfast, Marshall and the city’s planning board are vetting possible solutions as well and plan on bringing a detailed proposal to the city council in coming months. Among the changes they’re considering is allowing property owners in certain parts of the city to convert existing single-family homes or duplexes into multifamily units. Marshall said the city hopes to continue to find ways to encourage new market-rate housing construction.

A few years ago, Belfast changed its zoning ordinances to allow people to build apartments in detached structures, such as above-garage apartments. Around the same time, the city decreased the minimum lot size required to have a duplex.

Caler-Bell said communities should start taking a broader, regional look at the issue across the midcoast. She said the Midcoast Economic Development District, a group of which she is a member, recently began discussing the rental shortage as a concern and could begin looking at fixes. For example, it could be easier for a regional group such as this to secure the necessary funding to launch residential development projects that would put a dent in the problem.

Still, she said, it’s vital that towns continue to find ways to encourage private citizens to develop apartments on their own.

“Otherwise, our communities could fall victim to their own growth,” Caler-Bell said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

 



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