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It’s a well-established fact that Maine is in need of affordable housing. It was a topic of discussion before the pandemic, and the issue was made worse by the pandemic itself, when Maine saw an influx of cash buyers coming into the market.
Even amid a slower real estate market, Maine’s median sales price for homes has not wavered. It was $380,000 in July, compared to $216,900 in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic. The increase is more pronounced in Cumberland County, where the median sales price was $550,000 in July, up from $317,250 in February 2020.
The lack of affordable houses has meant more people are looking for (or staying put in) apartments or rental housing, creating additional demand on multifamily housing.
In coastal and resort areas of Maine, many houses that had previously been used for worker or year-round rental are now used for short-term rentals, including Airbnb. The issue has been particularly vexing on Mount Desert Island, where Acadia National Park hosts 4 million visitors a year yet housing shortages have resulted in severe worker shortages.
In Bar Harbor, a report released this week by the town council estimates that the town will need an additional 600 units of housing in the next decade. The report cited the effect of short-term rentals, which have siphoned off much of what had been year-round housing.
By various estimates, Maine needs up to 20,000 units of affordable housing.
But there's reason for optimism, including broader efforts from Avesta Housing, a Portland-based nonprofit, and Evernorth, an investment fund with dual headquarters in Portland and Burlington, Vt. (More on these later.)
Areas like Mount Desert Island, Lewiston-Auburn and Skowhegan-Madison have made affordable housing a priority.
The number of permits issued for multifamily housing has been on the upswing in Maine in recent years. While the number is expected to drop off this year, Maine approved development of nearly 19,000 housing units between 2020-22, according to U.S. Census data.
While the need for affordable housing is not expected to be met anytime soon, here are six efforts that are underway that at least offer some optimism that developers and local municipalities are focused on tackling the issue.
Earlier this week, Bath Housing announced plans for a project that will break ground soon, offering 18 units of affordable housing.
Bath Housing and Development Corp., which works to improve housing stability for Bath-area seniors, people with disabilities and families, is beginning construction on its first multifamily housing project since 1984.
As Mainebiz reported earlier this week, the 18 two-bedroom apartments will be located at 520 Centre St.
Bath Housing envisions two phases of development, with the first to include the apartments on the upper three floors and Bath Housing’s administrative offices to then be built on the first floor.
The property will be owned by Bath Housing and managed by Bath Housing Authority.
Ouellet Construction, of Brunswick, has been named construction manager, while design will be handled by Ryan Senatore Architects, of Portland.
The project is expected to break ground in early 2024.
Bath has also hosted other affordable housing in recent years.
Maine Housing and Portland-based Szanton Cos. collaborated on a 50-unit Uptown project on the site of the former YMCA. About 70% of the units will be reserved as affordable housing for tenants 55 and older.
This week Friends of Acadia, the fundraising partner of Acadia National Park, acquired four acres that will be earmarked for affordable housing.
In a transaction finalized Sept. 8, the nonprofit acquired the property from Seal Harbor Properties LLC for $265,000. Friends of Acadia financed the purchase through its own funds, Friends of Acadia President and CEO Eric Stiles told Mainebiz for a story earlier this week.
“Acadia National Park is such an important part of Mount Desert Island for residents, businesses and visitors,” said Neva Goodwin, managing partner of Seal Harbor Properties. “The park suffers, like many other organizations, from a crisis in affordable housing. Seal Harbor Properties is very happy to assist in a transaction that will address a small part of the need.”
Seal Harbor Properties is governed by members of the Rockefeller family and offered the property at a discounted price. Seal Harbor was once a summer home to financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. and then his son David Rockefeller Sr., who was chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Corp.
Friends of Acadia has partnered with the National Park Service to address the housing crisis on MDI and its surrounding communities. The housing shortage has a direct impact on Acadia’s ability to hire a seasonal workforce.
The group has actively sought property that can be used for worker housing.
Last spring, Friends of Acadia acquired the Kingsleigh Inn in Southwest Harbor to provide an additional 10 bedrooms for seasonal park employees. The group has also helped fund renovation of existing park housing units to add additional bedrooms.
The Somerset County towns of Skowhegan and Madison have seen a surge of development in the past year.
More than $650 million in capital projects are underway, including an addition to the New Balance shoe factory, a new elementary school and upgrades to the Sappi Somerset paper mill.
Despite the area's economic vitality, housing is in short supply. Area leaders say the vacancy rate is under 1%.
Developer Sam Hight, whose family owns the a car dealership in Skowhegan, teamed up with developers Kara Wilbur and Brian Eng to tackle affordable housing in nearby Madison. The result is 36 units at 55 Weston Ave., on a parcel that had been owned by the town.
Financing from MaineHousing and the Rural Affordable Housing Rental Housing Program helped set the development in motion.
Earlier this year, Szanton Cos. started work on Picker House Lofts, which will have 72 units at mixed-income levels.
The project, at 2 Cedar St., calls for a conversion of the Picker House section of the Continental Mill. Two local firms are involved: Hebert Construction, of Lewiston, will manage the project; Platz Associates, of Auburn, handled design.
Amenities will include a fitness center, rooftop deck, community room, laundry room, secure bike storage and off-street parking.
Avesta Housing, the Portland-based nonprofit, this year expects to unveil 167 new units of affordable housing.
The properties scheduled to open in 2023 include West End II in South Portland, Hillside at Village Square in Gorham, Porter Station in Portland and Snow School in Fryeburg.
Evernorth, an investment fund with dual headquarters in Portland and Burlington, Vt., is investing $54 million in affordable housing in northern New England, including five Maine projects that will total 188 housing units.
Evernorth's Housing New England IV Fund is tackling five projects in Maine: