Housing crisis

digging our communities – Knox County VillageSoup

Dr. Robert Wasserstrom lives in Camden and serves on the Economic and Workforce Development Committee of the Camden Rotary Club.

Over the next six years, Maine will need 10,000 workers to replace retirees. Data from the Maine Department of Labor suggests that employers in Knox, Waldo and Lincoln counties will seek about 800 additional hires. Where will they live?

A third of our housing stock is already reserved for seasonal occupation. New construction has stalled. Even when the homes go up for sale, the median price now hits $370,000 – affordable for households earning $150,000 a year with $75,000 saved for a down payment. That’s about double what most Midcoast families earn.

Many communities are becoming “emptied” as young families leave, school populations plummet and essential workers move away. Within six years, we will probably need 200 more houses and apartments than workers can afford.

In 2020, Camden Rotary Club adopted a strategic plan to support a vibrant and diverse regional economy. Workforce housing is one of our top priorities. We are partnering with a grassroots community group to form the Midcoast Regional Housing Trust, which will tackle this issue.

Last month, we conducted a housing needs assessment in 19 towns within a half-hour drive of Rockland: from Northport to Waldoboro and from Washington to the coast. Here are three key findings:

Our average age is much higher than most of Maine. In the near future, a smaller group of working households will have to pay for education and other public services.

Home health aides and service workers earning less than $15 an hour will outnumber workers in mid-range jobs — those that traditionally allowed them to buy a home.

Construction costs have increased by 40% or more since 2019 and are not expected to drop any time soon. And the shortage of skilled labor is beginning to be felt. New houses? The builders will tell you, “Find me the labor and materials and I can start next week.” Otherwise, it will be three years.

Other coastal and island communities in Maine struggle with similar issues. At least ten of them — including Mt. Desert Island, Deer Isle and North Haven — have formed housing trusts to make workforce housing permanently affordable.

Most housing trusts share a few basic principles. Homes are bought or donated and then sold at below-market prices. Owners must meet specific income criteria and live there year-round.

With few exceptions, trusts own the land in perpetuity, even after the houses are sold. The owners sign a 99-year ground lease with clauses allowing the trusts to recover their investments and resale subsidies. Rental terms also define how much sellers will earn when their homes change hands. Sellers usually get enough money to buy another house on the open market; the rest of the sale price is reinvested in affordable housing.

All trusts depend to some degree on private and corporate donors, but many have formed partnerships with local and state governments. In 2019, the city of Kennebunkport transferred nearly five acres of tax-acquired property to the Kennebunkport Heritage Housing Trust, which it had established the previous year. With help from the Maine State Housing Authority, KHHT is building 25 modular homes for families earning less than $58,000.

Another example: Since 1989, the Freeport Housing Trust has provided rental housing to families displaced by commercial development. The developer donated $550,000 for low- and middle-income housing in exchange for zoning approval. FHT now has 183 rental units in eight developments for seniors, people with disabilities and households earning less than $64,000.

Here in the Midcoast, we face a daunting challenge: to build 200 workforce housing units in a few years. Only a handful of trusts in New England operate on this scale. The leader started in Burlington, Vt.

In 1984, the city of Burlington donated $200,000 to the fledgling Champlain Housing Trust. Later, he invested $1 million from city pension funds. Today, CHT owns 2,300 affordable rental units in three counties and holds ground leases on more than 600 condominium homes. He is also self-sufficient. For the past ten years, it has derived 75% of its $19 million annual revenue from rents and property management; private donors contribute the rest.

Burlington and Freeport are precious models for us. We need to create effective public-private partnerships that can deliver new housing month after month, year after year. Of course, we hope that foundations and generous donors will help. But long-term sustainability cannot depend on philanthropy. Our entire community – major employers, municipal governments, real estate professionals, financial institutions and the rest of us – will need to be involved. We hope you will join us.

Dr. Robert Wasserstrom lives in Camden and serves on the Economic and Workforce Development Committee of the Camden Rotary Club. For a copy of the Midcoast Regional Housing Trust needs assessment, email midcoasthousing@gmail.com.

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