For those who have dreamed of buying a home in the communities where they’ve grown up or have planted roots, Maine’s housing market is posing a significant hurdle.
The state’s affordability problem has been simmering for decades, though the pandemic has only worsened the situation. As the housing market tightens, Mainers are being priced out of their communities. State and local officials are worried that could change the human landscape.
“People with young children or young adults who are just entering that point in their lives where they are moving out on their own and want to buy their first home, they cannot afford to live in the community that they grew up in and that is heartbreaking,” Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, said. “They are being forced out of their own communities.”
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.
In Rockland, officials have been grappling in recent years with how to remain affordable to existing residents as the city becomes a more attractive destination. Rockland City Councilor Ben Dorr, 36, feels finding affordable housing will be the biggest economic hurdle for his generation and the next one.
Dorr grew up in nearby Camden. Eight years ago, he was able to purchase a property in Rockland that was in foreclosure for about $24,000. He tore the existing house down and built a new home in its place. Looking back, Dorr said it was all luck and it’s a situation he knows is nearly impossible to stumble upon in Rockland now.
As fewer people who live and work in Rockland are able to afford to live there, Dorr said the community is at risk of losing its vibrancy.
“This past year we just saw that everybody in the entire world wants to move to our community. And that is great, we need people to come here because we’re the oldest state in the country.” Dorr said. “But at the same time, if that means that a kid who is graduating from [the local high school] is never going to be able to have a home and build a life here, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”
As the oldest state in the U.S., Maine is in need of growing its aging population. But the pandemic real estate boom hasn’t caused significant gains in slow population growth.
“In terms of attracting people to the state, the housing crunch is going to attract a certain type of people which is the people who have money. It’s not necessarily going to help for diversity of culture and diversity of income either,” Kessler said.
Jennifer Blackwell, a Brunswick mother of three, was thrust into homelessness this summer after she was unable to find an affordable rental in the competitive and frenzied market ignited by the pandemic.
Although she located affordable rentals in Bangor and Lewiston, she didn’t want to leave the Brunswick community where she grew up, works and her kids go to school. Ultimately her family found a place in neighboring Topsham. However, they couldn’t move in until September so they spent much of the summer living in a borrowed camper.
The experience has left her feeling like she’s been pushed out of the community where she’s from. “[In Brunswick] things were too expensive or just not available,” Blackwell said.
Even if people do manage to find a place to live in their community, but are paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs, it causes a trickle down effect on their rest of their life, Maine Affordable Housing Coalition Director Greg Payne said.
Spending a majority of one’s income on housing takes away from the funds available for other necessary things like food, medical care and transportation.
“They’re living in this month to month cycle where they just hope and pray that something doesn’t happen that tips things over the edge,” Payne said.
As Maine’s housing problems have become amplified in recent years, more people — including those in Augusta — have been talking about the problem, which housing advocates say is a good thing.
“The last few Legislatures have taken on the issue of affordable housing. And this particular Legislature that [adjourned in June], I’ve never seen more energy to do something about ending homelessness and creating affordable housing in my career,” Community Housing of Maine Executive Director Cullen Ryan said. “The legislators are saying, ‘Hey we’ve got to do something about this.’”
One of those legislators is Kessler, who said his own experience of struggling to find housing in his community of South Portland and having a brush with homelessness motivated him to be an advocate for affordable housing.
Kessler introduced a bill this year that would add a fee to vacant homes and short-term rentals that would add to the state’s affordable housing fund. The bill is being carried over to the next legislative session so further details can be worked out.
“Having safe, stable housing is the foundation to every other aspect of an individual’s health and wellbeing,” Kessler said. “When you’re housing insecure, you’re not in an environment to thrive, you are surviving.”