Roseanna and Matt St. Germain did not want to move away from Mount Desert Island, but in 2017 they felt they had little choice.
They moved off the island and across the bridge to Ellsworth, where they are renting a house they hope to buy that is a short walking distance from Matt’s job at Flexit Cafe in Ellsworth’s downtown. The married couple — both in their early 30s with three young children — had been looking to buy a home in Bar Harbor, where Matt spent much of his childhood. But, despite being a two-income household, they could not find anything they could afford.
They both work full-time, Roseanna said, “and yet it’s still not enough.”
“That same money across the bridge goes a lot farther,” Matt added.
The St. Germains are not alone in moving away from MDI.
Despite its growing appeal as a summertime tourist destination and the rapid growth of one of the island’s largest employers — the 1,500-employee Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor — MDI has seen the number of people who live there year-round slowly shrink over the years. At the same time, the four mainland towns closest to MDI — Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine and Trenton — have been growing.
“You can see it in the line of cars that drive onto the island every morning,” said Gary Friedmann, a Bar Harbor town councilor. “Clearly, our tourism industry is growing rapidly but we’re losing the basic working families that built this island. The whole fabric of the island community depends on us being able to provide affordable housing, and that is in short supply right now.”
The trend poses challenges to all four island towns as Bar Harbor grapples with how it can free up more housing for families and the other three struggle to maintain communities and businesses that can survive outside of the tourist season. Efforts to address the island’s affordable housing shortage have picked up in the past couple of years, but have yet to make a dent.
Shrinking and aging
Federal census data and school enrollment numbers paint a picture of a gradually shrinking and aging population, with the island’s three smaller towns — Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont — entirely responsible for the drop in population between 2000 and 2017.
The island as a whole lost 150 residents between 2000 and 2017. In that period, the population of the island’s three smaller towns dropped by 682 people, or more than 12 percent, while Bar Harbor’s population grew.
Just off the island, the year-round combined population of Ellsworth, Hancock, Lamoine and Trenton grew by nearly 2,300 people, or nearly 20 percent, during that same time period.
The island’s schools have also been shedding students more quickly than the rest of the state.
MDI’s elementary- and middle-school populations shrank by more than 14 percent from 2008 to 2018, while those in the four towns just off the island increased by more than 15 percent, according to Maine Department of Education data.
Bar Harbor’s Conners Emerson School, with students in kindergarten through eighth grade, lost a quarter of its students between October 2008 and October 2018, with enrollment dropping to 337 students from 448.
Across the state, Maine’s K-8 population dropped just 2.5 percent in that time.
Out of reach
Matt St. Germain’s roots are in Bar Harbor, where his father is a former town councilor and where he graduated from MDI High School. His and Roseanna’s story illustrates why living there is increasingly out of reach for a young, working family that wants to stay on the island.
With a median home price in Bar Harbor that’s more than $100,000 higher than the median for all of Hancock County, most houses exceeded the St. Germains’ budget. Matt and Roseanna considered affordable housing developments on the island, which come with year-round residency and work requirements, but they still found the cost too steep — even though they qualified for a loan and the prices were below what they found elsewhere on the island.
The move to Ellsworth simplified matters for Matt, who has been working there full-time for 10 years because he was never able to find year-round job on the island.
He said that he enjoys living close to where he works and where his children are in school and daycare. It allows him to spend more time with his children when he’s not working instead of spending an hour or more each day commuting.
For Roseanna’s part, when the couple lived in Bar Harbor she already was driving to Ellsworth each day before work to drop off her middle child at daycare because it was the only one in the area with a space available. So, even though she now commutes onto the island each morning to her job as a customer service representative at Jackson Lab, living in Ellsworth has shortened her morning routine.
Matt said many of his high school friends have moved off MDI for similar financial reasons. Others who remain but can’t afford a mortgage instead pay high rent, he said, which makes saving money a challenge.
Growth a housing strain
Housing prices throughout the island, boosted by demand from property investors and more affluent seasonal residents eager to own seaside summer homes in the shadow of Acadia National Park, routinely exceed the median home price for Hancock County as a whole, and often by tens of thousands of dollars.
Last year, the median price for a home in Hancock County was $210,000. That was only $5,000 less than the median price in Tremont (though $52,000 less than Tremont’s median home price in 2017), but was much less than the 2018 median prices of $316,500 in Bar Harbor, $355,000 in Southwest Harbor, and $544,000 in Mount Desert, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.
By contrast, median-priced homes last year in the four towns nearest MDI ranged from $185,000 in Ellsworth to $240,000 in Trenton.
Recognizing a lack of affordable housing, Bar Harbor has stepped up its registration and licensing requirements for weekly vacation rentals — a practice that has proven more lucrative than year-round leases for residential landlords, but which critics say contributes to the island’s increasing unaffordability. Many local homeowners have said they rely on weekly rental income in the summer, often from renting out their own homes or in-law apartments on their properties, in order to pay their mortgages.
The town also has sought to develop rules that would allow large-scale employers such as hotel firms to build dormitory-style employee housing, so they don’t have to buy up local houses and apartment complexes for their seasonal workers.
The latest attempt to relax that development restriction recently hit a setback, however, when the Bar Harbor Town Council voted last week to oppose a measure that otherwise would have gone to local voters in November.
Mount Desert 365
In the neighboring town of Mount Desert, an organization formed two years ago to try to reverse the decline in year-round population in the village of Northeast Harbor.
The outflow of year-round residents has sapped much of the vitality in the village, which serves as the town’s primary commercial hub. Northeast Harbor used to have a fish market, a drug store, a shoe repair shop, a bookstore and other year-round retail business that have faded away over the past 50 years. Now a market, a hardware store, and a convenience store are about the only places that sell things through the dead of winter.
The goal of Mount Desert 365 is to reinvigorate the village’s year-round community, which over recent decades has seen its offseason population shrink from close to 1,000 residents to fewer than 350, according to Kathy Miller, the group’s executive director.
The community’s decline has become more acute in the past decade, after fires destroyed four buildings on Main Street — three of which have yet to be rebuilt or replaced — and after a 2016 cruise ship visit to the local harbor prompted an open discussion about the town’s economic prospects, she said. (The town decided against letting cruise ships visit the village amid concerns about replicating Bar Harbor’s summertime congestion.)
During that discussion, “it came to light that the businesses on Main Street were really struggling,” Miller said. Northeast Harbor has gotten so quiet in the off-season, she said, that “now even in early spring, there’s no place in town to sit down and have lunch.”
The group has programs for local business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs, such as business skills classes and a business boot camp. It has also acquired local properties with the goal of helping to spur population growth and year-round commercial development, according to Miller.
She said the group owns three properties on Main Street, two of which have mixed-use buildings on them, and another off Sea Street that the group plans to develop as the new headquarters for the Maine Seacoast Mission. The properties were donated to the group, she said.
Mount Desert 365 plans to rent out the second stories of all buildings as affordable apartments, with the hope of attracting young families with school-age children, Miller said, and to develop single-family homes with affordability covenants in the deeds.
Developing affordable housing in a town where demand from wealthy seasonal residents has pushed the median home price to more than half a million dollars, is key to making sure that people with hourly-wage incomes can live there, she said.
Many people “still can’t find affordable, year-round housing, even with decent incomes,” Miller said.
Moving away was ‘really hard’
While Matt and Roseanna St. Germain appreciate the conveniences of living in Ellsworth, Matt said it has been difficult moving away from the town where he grew up and where he says there’s a strong sense of community.
“It was really hard for me because of my familiarity with the island,” Matt said.
However, he said, Ellsworth has grown on him a little bit.
Nonetheless, the St. Germains said they hope to move back to MDI someday. They still can’t help but occasionally browse the island’s real estate listings to see if anything might be in their budget.
“They don’t make it affordable for young families to live there,” Matt said.