September 20, 2018
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The rent is too damned high. New housing option, higher wages are part of the solution.

Nick McCrea | BDN
Nick McCrea | BDN
In the Greater Bangor market, nearly 60 percent of renters cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment and nearly half of households can’t afford a median-priced home without devoting more than 30 percent of their income to housing, according to 2017 Maine State Housing Authority data.

For years, we’ve heard about the affordable housing crisis in Portland. So, it was surprising to learn that Bangor is less affordable, in terms of housing, than the state’s largest city.

A committee has already been established to look into Bangor’s housing affordability problem; a subgroup has spent the past six months collecting data around the issue. It has a challenging task as affordable housing represents an intersection of many societal problems, including wage stagnation, poverty, substance abuse and a shortage of safe senior housing.

In addition, the conversation must be regional as people who live in Bangor don’t just work within the city limits and people who work in Bangor often live outside the city.

As a consequence, we should not expect quick, simple solutions. Instead, this work will focus important conversations, many of which are already ongoing, about new housing options, economic development, social support services, among other topics. Solutions will be multifaceted and long-term.

By accepted state and federal metrics, housing is not affordable when it requires more than 30 percent of an individual’s or family’s income. In the Greater Bangor market, nearly 60 percent of renters cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment and nearly half of households can’t afford a median-priced home without devoting more than 30 percent of their income to housing, according to 2017 Maine State Housing Authority data.

In Bangor specifically, the median income is $36,044 per year. Using the 30 percent rule, the median Bangor family could afford a house costing up to $113,197. The median sales price for a house in Bangor in 2017 was $136,000, significantly above the affordability threshold. Looked at another way, the average Bangor family would need to earn an additional $6,300 per year to afford a home in the city.

According the Maine Housing analysis, 57 percent of Bangor households — more than 8,200 — are unable to afford a median priced home.

Veazie is the region’s most unaffordable town, in terms of home buying. With a median annual income of $48,700, the average Veazie resident can afford a home selling for up to $161,837. The median home price in Veazie was $226,995 in 2017. Nearly 66 percent of that community’s residents can’t afford a median-priced home there.

Howland is the most affordable regional town for homebuying with a median home price of only $65,750. Of course, the low home prices are not a benefit when a homeowner wants to sell and relocate.

In Bangor 60 percent of apartment renters cannot afford monthly rent. The average rent in Bangor, for a two-bedroom apartment including utilities, is $791. But the median renter’s annual income of $24,589 only qualifies them for an apartment costing $615 per month, a significant gap.

The problem is not spread equally across the city. Renters in the Capehart, Tree Streets and the city’s West Side Village are most likely to pay unaffordable rent. These areas also have higher eviction rates.

Most affordable housing conversations focus on increasing the number of low-cost housing options, such using city ordinances to incentive the development of affordable housing and speeding the reuse of dilapidated housing. This is important and appropriate.

But that is only half the problem. New jobs and higher wages must also be part of the solution. Bangor’s recovery from the 2008 recession has been slow. Job growth in Bangor has been relatively flat in recent years and the city remains about 900 jobs short of 2007 employment levels. Portland, which has a more diverse economy, has seen a more than 5 percent increase in jobs over that time.

Many of the high-paying jobs in the Bangor area, especially in manufacturing and construction, have not been replaced. The sectors where there are new jobs, food service and accommodations and education, for example, pay lower wages in Bangor than the state average.

These and other issues are on the minds of Bangor officials and the city’s housing committee, which began meeting this week. They won’t find easy answers, but their ultimate recommendations should improve Bangor for all its residents.

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