BAR HARBOR — The perceived crunch for seasonal and year-round employee housing here is real, according to data compiled by the Island Housing Trust (IHT). The housing stock here is shrinking, few homes affordable to families earning a median income are on the market, and landlords receive a higher return from short-term rentals and AirBnB than longer-term leases.
Between 2011 and 2016, the population of Mount Desert Island grew 2 percent, said Tom Dworetsky of the New York-based consulting firm Camoin Associates, who led the study. In the same period, the number of housing units on MDI fell 2 percent.
About 30 residents, town officials, employers and realtors gathered at Mount Desert Islander High School June 21 to discuss initial findings from the study.
Dworetsky said the study was based on census data, a survey of employers, and interviews with some of those employers. The study found that 78 percent of island-based business owners – who are responsible for about one-third of Hancock County jobs – thought it was difficult for their employees to find housing on MDI.
The median household annual income in Hancock County is $50,037, Dworetsky said, but income needed to afford a median-priced home on the island is in the vicinity of $50,600 to $81,320. This could push MDI’s workers – of which 54 percent live off-island – to pursue housing elsewhere in Hancock County, where annual income needed to afford a median-priced home is $39,290.
The median home value has doubled on the island since 2000, while median income has only increased 40 percent. Those median-priced homes rarely come on the market, he said.
Homeowners who rent their property, Dworetsky said, have a higher return with short-term rentals than longer ones, even if they only operate the rental for a few weeks in the summer. This limits the stock of year-round rentals available to employees.
AirBnB rentals on MDI are rented more than 50 percent of the nights they are available, he said. A homeowner offering an average rate per night for an AirBnB, $175, need only rent for 10 weeks of the year to make more money than renting long-term for a whole year at $1,000 per month.
Following a presentation of the data, Noel Musson of Southwest Harbor planning firm The Musson group led a public comment session.
Linda Higgins, who serves on the IHT board, said a missing generation of 25 to 35 year olds has been held back from living on MDI.
That sentiment is supported by the data: MDI residents are older, with a high proportion of residents between the ages of 50 and 70, and there are relatively few young adults.
“I see young people, like in their 30s, who want to live here; that bracket of people we’re not seeing,” she said. “The biggest part of that is because they can’t get a job that pays enough to do housing on Mount Desert Island. They want to have a dog and a couple of kids but we’re not being able to let them do the American dream.”
Some attendees said island residents have a “not in my backyard” mentality about development – they may support a large housing unit, just not near their own property.
Bar Harbor Town Council Chair Gary Friedmann said he thought a large apartment development would be successful in town.
“My contention is that if you build it they will come,” he said. “I have always felt something like that in downtown Bar Harbor would be filled because you have all the downtown businesses.”
One participant blamed realtors and developers for the high prices and limited housing stock.
“The reality is that we have to deal with the free market,” Musson said. “There’s opportunities for everybody and we need to figure out the path.”
Bar Harbor Town Planner Janna Richards said realtors, builders and bankers should be included in next steps of the study.
Attendees also expressed concerns about housing for aging residents not being able to find housing and public transportation. The current seasonal bus system isn’t sufficient to help workers without cars, they said.
One participant suggested a donor-driven fund that would pick up the cost gap between a property’s price and the buyer’s needs.
Residents also asked the towns to work together to help address the housing problem.
A final presentation is expected in late September or early October. IHT’s hope, Executive Director Alison Beane said, is that a committee with representatives from all four island towns could be formed to help implements any policy changes suggested by the study.
Support for the housing study came from the towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, residents of Southwest Harbor, Harbor House, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Mount Desert 365, The Jackson Laboratory and a grant from the Hancock County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation.