Bob Osborne, Bar Harbor's planning director. Osborne was among those to speak at a housing symposium hosted by the Island Housing Trust. PHOTO COURTESY OF RON BEARD

Housing challenges, solutions explored

BAR HARBOR — A shortage of housing on Mount Desert Island that’s affordable to people who work here is not a problem that will be solved quickly, organizers of a May 11 symposium said.

“Our hope is to get this job done within one generation,” said Ted Koffman, board president of the Island Housing Trust (IHT), which organized the event. “We hope that when our toddlers today are adults tomorrow, we’ll have this under hand.”

More than 100 people attended the event. IHT director Alison Beane said she was pleased with the turnout. “Not just with the number of folks, but also there seemed to be a good mix: we had community members, municipal leaders, realtors, bankers, builders and more,” she said.

Labor economist John Dorrer said demographic trends and market conditions make the housing issue even more urgent.

“If we hesitate or wait too long, the moment is gonna pass us,” he said. If employers have too hard a time attracting and retaining employees who can live nearby, they may leave the area.

As baby boomers retire, Dorrer said, many are selling the houses they raised their families in and downsizing. The problem for those looking for workforce housing is that housing stock is often bought as second homes for the wealthy and unavailable for the next generation of young families.

“If we don’t have children in our towns, we have nothing,” said Eric Henry, former Southwest Harbor School Board member.

Linda Higgins of Tremont said summer residents contribute to communities here, especially by creating jobs. But “we’ve also got to have ambulance personnel and firefighters, for example, living in the communities where they’re needed.”

Dorrer criticized state income tax cuts, calling them “one massive tax shift” to municipalities and property tax payers. “At some point, we’ve got to reverse that so we don’t have the discouragement of property taxes continually going up.”

IHT board member Kyle Shank conducted a survey of people who work on MDI to gauge opinions and experiences with housing. About a third of the 360 respondents live off-island, he said. Seventy percent of those would prefer to live on MDI. Most said the biggest barrier was not being able to find a home in their price range.

Survey respondents said they were in the market for a home under $250,000, he said. But the median listing price of homes currently for sale is $392,500, even after excluding properties listed for over $1 million.

Philippe Jordi, director of Island Housing Trust of Martha’s Vineyard, said his island has many similar challenges to MDI. A 2012 Massachusetts law creating a “community investment tax credit” has been a game-changer for that organization’s ability to develop workforce housing, he said.

The city of Ellsworth commissioned an in-depth study of housing needs several years ago. One of the projects that grew out of it was a planned 50-unit development on Oriole Way behind Reny’s, said Kevin Bunker of the Brunswick-based Developer’s Collaborative.

To make housing development feasible, Bunker said, important factors are finding the right sites that have appropriate zoning and are close to amenities but aren’t in “hot” areas where land will be too expensive.

Then, he said, public incentive programs and nontraditional financing options can help as “gap fillers” to be sure a project pencils out.

Hannah Pingree of North Haven Sustainable Housing, Liza Fleming-Ives of the Genesis Loan Fund, and Bar Harbor Planning Director Bob Osborne also addressed the group.

“It seems like there was a lot of energy after the event,” Beane said. “I’ve had lots of follow-up emails from people interested in working on this. We’re going to have a follow-up event in July, so we can include summer residents and keep the conversation going.”

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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