MOUNT DESERT — “I frequently hear from families that want to move here and are having a really hard time finding affordable housing in the town of Mount Desert,” said Gloria Delsandro, principal at Mount Desert Elementary School.
She said the school has lost potential students because of that.
“It’s not an outlandish number, but it is a challenge,” she said.
“This is a great place to live. And I know there are hard-working families that want to be part of the community year-round. I would take all the children, but I can’t [because of the housing situation], and that makes me sad. We have a wonderful school, and I would love to have more children.”
Mount Desert Elementary started the 2019 school year, several months before the COVID-19 pandemic began, with 165 students. The opening enrollment 21 years earlier was 239. After hitting a low of 152 in 2009, enrollment rebounded to 196 in 2015, but has declined since then.
Kathy Miller, executive director of Mount Desert 365, the nonprofit that is working to provide more workforce housing, said the drop in school enrollment is due in large part to the ever-shrinking amount of affordable, year-round housing stock. She told members of the Summer Residents Association at their meeting last week that more and more houses where people had been living year-round are being sold and turned into short-term vacation rentals.
As a result, she said, “We’re losing school population here, and the school is such a central piece of our community identity. This town has a tremendous asset in its school, and we’re at risk of losing that.”
Delsandro said there are some families who are able to rent houses from late fall to spring, but then have to move so the house can be used for vacation rentals.
“There are families that live in campgrounds because of that,” she said.
(As the Islander reported earlier this month, the Mount Desert Board of Selectmen has asked the town’s Land Use Zoning Ordinance advisory committee to look at ways vacation rentals might be regulated to stem the loss of year-round housing.)
MD365 is finding that building affordable housing is challenging, to say the least. The organization has had designs created for two houses it would like to build on an 0.25-acre lot that it owns on Summit Road in Northeast Harbor.
“We went out to at least a dozen contractors on or just off the island, but we only got two bids, and they were between $400,000 and $500,000 per house,” Miller said. “That wasn’t going to work.”
To qualify to buy any of the houses that MD365 or the Island Housing Trust builds, a family of four must have a total household income of no more than 160 percent of the state’s median income as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That household income limit is currently $121,120.
“So, we’re not looking at low-income families,” Miller said. “It’s median-income families who still are having a really challenging time finding anything on the island. Living here is unaffordable for year-round people who work here in town or anywhere else.”
She said MD365 is now considering less costly modular or panelized construction for the two Summit Road houses.
“But we’re going to be picky; we don’t like what we’ve seen so far as available models,” she said. “Whatever we do, we want to have houses that are aesthetically pleasing so that they fit in with the neighborhood and that are environmentally sustainable.”
MD365 also owns an 0.79-acre lot at the corner of Manchester and Neighborhood roads in Northeast Harbor that currently has a house on it. MD365 has submitted preliminary plans to the town’s Planning Board to put five more single-family residences on the lot.
The nonprofit also owns three contiguous lots on Neighborhood Road with a total of 2.75 acres, where it hopes to eventually build perhaps 10 or more houses.
The drop in elementary school enrollment over the past 20 years isn’t unique to Mount Desert; the three other MDI towns have experienced similar or even greater losses.
Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor had a high of 490 students at the start of the 1999 school year. In 2019, the number was 358, having recorded a low of 338 the year before.
Pemetic Elementary in Southwest Harbor had a starting enrollment of 246 in 1998, a low of 139 in 2010 and 148 in 2019.
Tremont Consolidated School had 208 students in 1999. By 2013 there were 99 fewer students. Tremont started the 2019 school year with an enrollment of 132.
Enrollment at Mount Desert Island High School dropped from a high of 708 in 2003 to 541 in 2019, a decline of 24 percent. And that was with an increase over the past decade in the number of tuition students from Trenton, Lamoine and Hancock, who now make up about 25 percent of the student body.