Two apartment buildings with four units each on Harden Farm Road off Kebo Street in Bar Harbor house seasonal Acadia National Park employees. In a recent survey of MDI employers, 42 percent said their business supplies housing for employees, either as part of their compensation or for rent. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

Housing crunch may be holding back job growth

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a series about the recently-released housing study.

BAR HARBOR — Finding a place to live on Mount Desert Island that is both adequate and affordable is “a major challenge” for those who work here, according to the MDI employers in a recent survey.

Of the 78 respondent businesses to participate in the study, commissioned by the Island Housing Trust and released last year, only four said the current housing stock “adequately meets the needs of my employees.”

Home to year-round communities but also dependent on tourism, MDI has both year-round and seasonal employers.

The survey sample of 78 employers included 37 seasonal businesses, 35 non-seasonal and six unclassified. They represented a “fairly diverse sample of businesses, ranging from sole proprietors up to businesses with well over 100 employees,” the study says.

Of the respondent businesses, 63 percent were located in the island’s largest town of Bar Harbor.

Job growth

Some of the survey responses varied between seasonal and non-seasonal employers, and large and small companies.

Among seasonal employers, for example, 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “finding adequate housing that is affordable is a major challenge for my employees.” Among year-round employees, 74 percent agreed to the same statement.

Regardless of size or seasonality, the study said, “60 percent [of employers] agreed or strongly agreed that the lack of affordable housing options negatively impacted their business.”

Both seasonal and year-round employers reported that lack of housing for potential employees “constrains economic growth for the community” by slowing job growth.

MDI employers polled said they do plan to hire more workers: an average of 2.8 each within the next year, and 11.3 each within the next 10 years.

However, survey respondents said they would hire an additional 3.9 employees per business — for a total of 278 workers across all respondents — if there were more workers in the area. Breaking that down further, 67 of the additional jobs would be seasonal, and 211 would be year-round, according to the survey.

Employers were also asked to rate how difficult it is “to attract and retain employees” with current housing availability. The average response was 3.2 on a scale of one to five, with one being “not at all difficult,” and five being “very difficult.” On each end of this response, “17 percent of businesses found it very difficult to attract and retain employees, while 12 percent found it to be not at all difficult.”

When asked how difficult it was for workers to find adequate housing on MDI specifically, the average rating was 4.33, with 66 percent of employers choosing a rating of 5, or “very difficult.”

Nearly half of respondents, 42 percent, said their business supplies housing for employees, either as part of their compensation, or for rent. Most businesses supplying housing were medium-sized (21-50 employees), or larger (50-plus employees).

Size was more of a factor than seasonality, with seasonal employers only slightly more likely to provide housing than non-seasonal employers.

Housing types

All employers, when asked what housing they would like to see on the island, said that they would like to see more single-family rentals and seasonal worker housing. Following those, respondents said they would like to see townhouse rentals, and single-family owner-occupied homes. Further down the list in order of preference were multi-family apartments and condos.

In addition to answering questions, employers were invited to write comments. “Multiple respondents mentioned the need for housing specific to working adults and/or students, particularly rental options,” the study said. Many employers noted a need for seasonal workforce housing for a rental price “consistent with income levels” of seasonal workers.

Some employers also noted “that short-term rentals such as Airbnb and HomeAway limited the supply of short-term workforce housing further.”

The employer survey was one of the sources used by Camoin Associates of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who conducted the study for IHT in partnership with The Musson Group of Southwest Harbor. Other methods included compiling data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources and interviewing stakeholders including employers, town and school employees and real estate brokers. Input from the public was also sought at a public workshop in June 2018.

JAX plans

Concerns brought up by employers in the survey are similar to concerns brought up in conversations between Bar Harbor Town Council and the town’s largest employer, The Jackson Laboratory.

“Employees would prefer to be here and close to work, but they’re priced out of the market. They all want more opportunities to buy and be long-term residents, which is what we need for a vital community,” the lab’s Chief Operating Officer Katy Longley told Town Council members at a meeting in June.

The top researchers employed by the lab make enough money to rent or buy property in Bar Harbor. “But,” she said, “we would like to see our whole community from the hourly employee, custodial worker up to the Ph.D. scientist, feel welcomed and have an option to live on the island.”

According to Longley, the lab is exploring the possibility of building housing for employees on 35 acres of land it owns on Schooner Head Road, but the earliest that facility would be built is 2021.

Councilor Gary Friedmann said that the town would like to work together with Jackson Laboratory, IHT and other organizations on housing solutions, but that he felt new housing should not be built on tax-exempt land.

“The town continues to see an erosion of its tax base and [Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit] has been part of that in recent years,” he said. “I would personally want to see any housing that was developed on the tax rolls.

“If you were to develop millions of dollars worth of housing on [Jackson Laboratory] land and claim that it was exempt, then I think that would be putting a huge burden on the taxpayers.”

Becky Pritchard
Former Islander reporter Becky Pritchard covered the town of Bar Harbor and was a park ranger in Acadia for six seasons.
Becky Pritchard

Latest posts by Becky Pritchard (see all)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.