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July 21, 2021

In York County, spiking housing costs price out working-class families 

Courtesy / Beals Associates In the town of York, plans were approved last month for a 63-apartment affordable housing complex, shown here in a rendering. But a new report says York County as a whole is not affordable for working-class families.

York County’s housing affordability crunch is even more extreme and progressing more rapidly than for the state overall, according to a new report from the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission.

Home prices continue to rise, but incomes have not kept pace, according to the report. From 2015-19, York County’s median income increased by 13.5%, while median home prices increased faster at 34.8%.

"York County as a whole is not affordable for working-class families,” the report said.

“Before COVID-19, housing costs were rising. Over the last 17 months, the pandemic has exacerbated this issue,” added Raegan Young, the commission’s community planner and outreach specialist.

An “affordable” home is generally defined as housing where monthly costs of rent or mortgage, plus utilities, don’t exceed 30% of gross income, the report said.

The commission leads planning and economic development for 39 member towns in Southern Maine in York, southern Oxford and Cumberland Counties. 

According to the study, in 2020, the top five “unaffordable” municipalities were Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, Arundel, Kennebunk and Old Orchard Beach. The five most affordable towns were Waterboro, Limington, Buxton, Dayton and Berwick.

Affordable housing at a ‘crisis’ point in southern Maine

The shortage of worker housing is not limited to York County, and the situation has escalated elsewhere in Maine.

“For years, York and Cumberland counties and coastal areas were stressed. The rest of the state was less severe. Of late, the affordability problem now encompasses the state and it’s in crisis proportions now in York and Cumberland,” said Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing provider.

“Those with the lowest incomes have the biggest problem and are paying more than 30% of their income on housing — they are disproportionately cost-burdened,” Totman told Mainebiz.

Totman said Avesta fields 500 calls a week from people looking for affordable housing — yet the organization only has about four to eight available openings at any given time.

“Callers are more desperate than ever. The desperation in the voices is palpable,” he said.

The report found that municipalities see housing affordability as their greatest challenge. Inland towns’ affordability fluctuates over time and are close to the affordable threshold, but coastal towns are unaffordable for most people.

“This is a real household problem. If all these houses are selling at full, or above-market prices, it hurts the revaluation for everyone. It will affect the mill rate. It will affect seniors trying to stay and age in place. It puts significant pressure on middle income folks,” said Saco Mayor William Doyle.

Doyle cited housing affordability and strain on his constituents as “nearing the top” of his list of his stressors.

“We all don’t like change. We’re all creatures of habit. But as a community, we’re trying to balance the needs and stressors, how to look out for folks who want to stay in the community and those who want growth."

The “Housing Affordability Report of York County” marks the commission’s first step in a process to identify and address the problem. Beyond the report, the commission hopes to expand its study to look at commuting patterns, costs of transportation and land use impacts, according to Young.

“We’re very aware that housing is a very complex issue and we hear all the time from our municipalities and partners the various issues that pressure housing,” he said.

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