Jennifer Blackwell of Brunswick sits with her three-month-old daughter Gracelyn inside a small camper they're sharing with Blackwell's partner and two older children this summer. The camper was the family's only option as rents are increasingly scarce and expensive in Maine's midcoast region. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

When the home she had been renting in Brunswick for the last two years sold this spring, Jennifer Blackwell, a mother of three, had 30 days to find a new place to live.

Blackwell and her network of family and friends scoured the Brunswick area for rentals, but properties were being snapped up almost immediately after they were listed. Unable to find a rental, Blackwell and her boyfriend resorted to moving their family from hotel to hotel.

She’s a nurse. He works in construction. They did not expect to be homeless.

“It’s not that we couldn’t afford to get into a place, we just couldn’t find one. There is just not enough available housing,” Blackwell said.

Maine’s lack of quality affordable housing is an issue that has been simmering for well over a decade, especially in coastal communities and in cities like Portland.

But housing experts say the problem is quickly worsening as the pandemic has intensified the demand for housing in a state that has become a more attractive place to live to out-of-state buyers. Swaths of Mainers are finding they can no longer afford to live in the communities where they’ve planted roots and, like Blackwell, are being thrust into housing insecurity as they compete to find a place to live.

“It was bad before. It’s out of control now and I don’t know where it ends,” Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said. “The level of desperation is climbing and climbing.”

The state of Maine affordable housing

Neither the statewide median monthly cost of $1,062 for a two-bedroom rental nor the median home price of $255,000 was considered affordable last year, according to data from MaineHousing, the state’s housing authority.

The agency considers a rental affordable if the cost doesn’t exceed 30 percent of the household’s income. For homeowners, affordability means not spending more than 28 percent of gross annual income on mortgage payments.

Affordability fluctuates from county to county and town to town. But in 2020, the median rent for the largest town or city in each of Maine counties was considered unaffordable to a majority of the renters who resided there.

For example, Portland’s median monthly rent of $1,881 was unaffordable to about 75 percent of residents; Bangor’s median $1,110 rent was unaffordable to about 65 percent; Ellsworth’s median rent of $1,629 was unaffordable to about 76 percent; Skowhegan’s median rent of $920 was unaffordable to 67 percent; and Rockland’s median rent of $1,520 was unaffordable to about 73 percent.

Nationwide, Maine has the ninth largest gap between the income of an average renter and the income needed to afford a two-bedroom rental, according to a recent study from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.  

Cheaper housing can be found in more rural areas, according to MaineHousing data. But living outside of population centers can lead to other problems, including high transportation costs.

“Demand for rental assistance remains very high, so that means people who are renting are having a hard time making ends meet,” MaineHousing Director Dan Brennan said. “The problem has been there, and it’s actually a little bit more intense right now than it has been.”

The pandemic real estate boom

A real estate for sale sign sits outside 65 George St. in South Portland on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. South Portland now ranks in the top 10 most competitive U.S. cities in which to buy a house. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Over the course of 2020, Maine saw a record number of home sales, driven partially by out-of-state buyers who found Maine an attractive — and more affordable — place to escape to during the pandemic.

In the fall of last year, about 33 percent of home purchases were being made by out-of-state buyers, up from an average of 25 percent, according to the Maine Association of Realtors.

The relatively low inventory of homes on the market and the increased interest in Maine has created a competitive market over the last year, which has driven up prices, according to the association.

The median sale price of a single-family home in Maine jumped nearly $30,000 from $225,000 in 2019 to $256,000 in 2020, according to the Maine Association of Realtors. In previous years, the median price rose by about $5,000 to $15,000.

The competitive market has put people of “modest means” and first-time home buyers at a disadvantage, according to Brennan.

“On the single-family [home] side you’ve got intense interest from outside of the state that we haven’t had before,” Brennan said. “When homes are going on the market and you’re getting multiple offers above asking price it gives us concern that those people that are out there just trying to land that first home are in a tougher competitive situation than ever before.”

Trickle-down effect on the rental market

Portland landlord Ned Payne, who owns about 100 rentals in the city, said he’s seeing his tenants stay in their units longer instead of attempting to find a new rental.

“There is very little turnover, because it is so difficult to find an apartment. The few vacancies we do have we are able to turn over very quickly,” Ned Payne said.

When Ned Payne has an apartment available for rent, he receives about 70 responses, including 10 from those who will rent the unit sight unseen. Payne said this frantic demand is unheard of.

Greg Payne of the affordable housing coalition agrees that the frenzied real estate market is having a trickle-down effect on the rental market.

“As the markets have skyrocketed coming out of this pandemic, what we’ve seen, I think, is a lot of people who would typically be in the homeownership market fall out of that market because things have gotten so insane there, and we just have more and more people who are in the renter market,” Greg Payne said.

In addition to his role with the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, Greg Payne also works for Avesta Housing, a Portland-based organization that builds and manages both affordable and market-rate housing developments statewide. It’s also seeing a surge in need.

In 2019, Avesta received about 15 calls per day from people in need of housing. Now, it’s getting that many calls per hour every day, Greg Payne said.

“It is very hard to know when Maine’s housing market is going to find its new equilibrium,” Payne said. “It will likely take many more months before the dust settles a bit and we can start making sense of just how much greater our housing supply problem has become.”

The problem becomes even more acute for people who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to finding housing.

“For the general populace to find housing, it’s like having to do gymnastics. But for a population who have an imperfect rental history or have very limited resources or struggle with issues that affect their behavior, they have an even harder time competing for this housing,” Community Housing of Maine Director Cullen Ryan said.

Blackwell and her boyfriend eventually found a suitable home in nearby Topsham. The rent is $400 more than they previously paid, but it’s doable. However, though they have their deposit in, the home won’t be available until September.

Until then, they’re staying in a borrowed camper, which gets them out of the costly cycle of moving from hotel to hotel every week. It’s far from ideal, especially with a 3-month-old baby, but Blackwell is relieved to have some stable housing secured.

Existing factors

The pandemic has fueled the affordable housing problem, but it did not create it. From the older housing stock to outdated municipal zoning codes, housing experts say no single thing is to blame.

“It’s not easy to say this one thing is what caused all of this,” Brennan said. “But you just get the combination of a low-wage base population, Maine being a very attractive [place], we live in a wonderful state and people want to be here, so that creates a market that hurts other people trying to just get a leg up.”

Changes to zoning codes are one of the only tools municipal leaders have to encourage the development of more housing.

“Zoning can box people out. It can make things unattractive to a developer because they have  to jump through hoops and it cuts down on their ability to do it affordably,” Midcoast Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Tia Anderson said. “So I think reevaluating zoning [is necessary], not that everything has to change constantly, but I think you have to be open to sort of adapting.”

Reevaluating zoning ordinances has been one of the main ways city leaders in Rockland have tried to address the city’s affordable housing crunch. However, there has been significant pushback to attempted zoning changes as residents fear adding new and smaller homes will erode the character of existing neighborhoods.

But Ryan said communities need to be more open to denser housing.

“Only now are we starting to take a look at our downtown areas and our communities and say, can we squeeze a tall building into this parking lot?” Ryan said. “Can it be housing for a large number of people and have a business on the ground floor?”

Concentrating more housing in community centers cuts down on the need for transportation and its additional cost burden, keeping people closer to their jobs and social services, Ryan said. That helps address some of the income barriers.

One of the foundational issues is that Mainers simply don’t make enough to keep up with the cost of housing.

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To afford the state’s median rent, a household would need an annual income of about $42,500, which is nearly $7,000 more than the median renter household income, according to MaineHousing data from 2020.

“When you have a population that has a lower income level on average, rising real estate costs, rising prices, that’s the recipe for a tough situation,” Brennan said.

Maine also doesn’t have enough new affordable housing being built to address the problem. Maine needs about 25,000 more affordable housing units to respond effectively to the need, according to MaineHousing’s 2020 annual report.

In recent years, the state has seen a slow uptick in the number of new affordable housing units, according to Brennan. By administering a combination of federal and state tax credits, as well as additional funding and financing, MaineHousing helped build 328 affordable housing units last year, according to its annual report.  

This year about 550 to 600 affordable housing units are on track to be finished and next year there should be another 750 units completed, Brennan said.

“Affordable housing is a need everywhere, but it looks different everywhere and that’s where I think we have to be sensitive to what works in one place doesn’t work in another,” Anderson said.