KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Many well-heeled Seacoast communities are grappling with ways to encourage economic diversity among residents, and provide mechanisms so those who work locally in even decent-paying jobs can afford to live in town. In one York County community, where the disparity between housing costs and median income is particularly significant, an innovative solution is being forged.
With a vision to create 25 new, permanently affordable, year-round homes by 2025, the Heritage Housing Trust of Kennebunkport is working to draw young families to Kennebunkport and provide housing for the town’s workforce.
The Heritage Housing Trust was established to address the rising need for workforce and affordable housing in Kennebunkport where the median home cost has jumped 106 percent in less than a decade.
In 2000, the median cost of a house in the town of 3,600 residents was $234,200, compared to $481,637 today. The median income has only risen by 41 percent — from $54,219 to $76,643.
Similar disparities are seen throughout the Greater Seacoast. Portsmouth has a median household income of $69,664, according to New Hampshire Employment Security, yet the median selling price of a residence is $445,000, according to Trulia. In York, the median listing price for a home in June was $479,000, yet the median household income in 2018 was $83,072.
These numbers make it impossible for those who serve the community to live where they work, Kennebunkport Town Manager Laurie Smith said. Some 80 percent of the town’s workforce commutes into town from neighboring towns, and young families are scarce, with only a handful of babies born yearly, and 103 students who lived in Kennebunkport enrolled at Kennebunkport Consolidated School in 2018.
Eileen Lang, a board member for the housing trust, said her son grew up in Kennebunkport and would love to live here, but bought a house in Biddeford because it was more affordable.
“I want this for people like my son and other families. Everybody on this board has the same passion and pride in the work that we are doing, and what we have been able to put together quickly, thoughtfully and passionately,” Lang said. “We are really excited, it’s taken a great deal of dedication from this group.”
A housing assessment study conducted in 2018 showed the need for a solution to the lack of affordable housing, and last September the Kennebunkport Board of Selectmen approved funding the legal costs to establish the housing trust, which is run by a volunteer board of directors. The housing trust is a separate entity from town government. Smith and town planner Werner Gilliam are ex-officio members of the housing trust board, and Selectman Pat Briggs is a member and serves as the liaison apprising the selectmen of the trust’s work.
Using models of similar programs in communities like Bar Harbor and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the housing trust board tailored its program to meet the needs of Kennebunkport. The first four homes will be classic cape-style houses on 4.5 acres of town-owned land. While a recently acquired 87-acre town-owned parcel has been discussed as a possible location for some Heritage homes, Briggs said there are no immediate plans.
The Heritage Trust is set up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, enabling people to make both donations of land, and monetary donations to help with the purchase of land. Each house will be built in a style to fit in with the aesthetic of the town, Briggs said.
The first four houses will be built before they are sold, so the homeowners will not be able to choose the style, but subsequent projects will have models to choose from, he said. The homes will be designed in a New England style and will be built to meet energy efficiency goals. Briggs said they will be going through the Planning Board process for the first four houses this fall, and hope to break ground just after the first of the year.
There will be an application process, and homeowners will have to qualify for the mortgage. Additional qualifications for potential buyers will include their relationship to the community and a background review. The price of the home will be lower because it will not include the cost of the land. They will remain permanently affordable through land leases, and covenants will ensure they remain financially accessible for low- to middle-income qualified families and individuals for years to come.
“Applicants could include people who grew up in Kennebunkport, serve in public safety roles, teach in our schools, or are employed locally,” Briggs said.
Heritage Housing Trust board member Sarah Dore has lived in Kennebunkport her entire life. Her father was a founding member of Kennebunkport Emergency Services and her mother worked on the ambulance service.
“I’m super proud of them. And I felt proud to live here and go to Consolidated School,” she said. “I think there’s a sense of community here that I love, and that I want everybody to have.”
“It’s what we value here,” fellow board member Pat Briggs said.
“My husband and I both work, and we have three kids in the schools, and without family support, we wouldn’t be able to stay here,” Dore said.
And that’s a key point, Briggs said. “The trust, in a way, is doing what your parents would like to be able to do for you. We’re saying if you want to work hard, and you work to have good credit and you want to buy a home, this is what you can do with the help of the trust.”
Smith said having public safety personnel and public works employees commuting in from outside communities puts residents at risk and limits the level of service they are able to provide.
The average age of a Kennebunkport firefighter is over 55, she said, and without younger firefighters responding to calls, service may be limited.
“With public works employees, if you need people to respond in a snow emergency for plowing, or because there’s a sewer line breach, and they have to travel from far away, that impacts services,” Smith said.
Dore said the housing trust will also address the need for senior housing for older Kennebunkport residents who need to downsize, but want to continue to live in the community.
“This is a beginning to address the root problem. I think of the housing trust as being the support that some families may or may not have, and also a support for seniors who want to retire and stay in town. This is a way to encourage and support that,” Dore said.
Briggs said with undeveloped land becoming more scarce in town, the trust is looking for parcels, and welcomes donations of land from families who believe in the trust’s mission.
“We are setting up a good model that will have longevity, and will provide affordable housing that will remain affordable into perpetuity,” he said.