Last month, the Mills administration announced the hiring of Greg Payne as a senior advisor on housing policy. Payne is tasked with finding innovative policy solutions to address Maine’s shortage of workforce and affordable housing. He began the job on Sept. 7.
We wish him luck as he begins this much needed work, but the cards are stacked against him.
Single family homes increased statewide by 25 percent in 2021, according to the Maine Association of Realtors. The median price for a home now stands at $310,000, which many working-class folks would say is a long way from affordable.
While that might be the median cost for a home elsewhere in the state, Mount Desert Island is on a much different level. Last week, Island Housing Trust held the first in a series of talks around the island to explain the current housing situation. They found that the median asking price of a home on MDI was $657,000 – or more than double the median statewide cost. To afford a home in that price range, the annual household income needed is $152,000 and the monthly mortgage would run you about $3,800.
However, when you learn that the median household income on MDI is $75,700, it is easy to see why we are at talking about being at a crisis level. As we know from the past year, there are more than enough people lining up to purchase homes on MDI. They are selling like hotcakes in fact, but they aren’t being purchased by the average working family and this in turn is adding to the crisis. Without working-aged people contributing to the workforce, we are likely to continue to see staff shortages in every sector from plumbing to hospitality.
The problem is not just on MDI, as we have seen with the recent move to close the Island Nursing Home on Deer Isle, with administrators citing the inability to hire and retain enough workers due to a lack of available and, most importantly, affordable, housing.
And the problem is not just for home buyers either. Renters are facing similar hurdles. Fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Maine is $1,112 per month, according to federal housing data. To afford that level of rent and utilities – without spending more than 30 percent of income on housing – a household must earn $21.39 per hour in a 40-hour week, which is $3,707 per month or $44,488 annually, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
However, these numbers, much like the housing numbers, just don’t add up. The average renter in Maine earns $12.90 per hour – just above minimum wage.
The lack of affordable housing is beginning to impact the very fabric of the community – making it nearly impossible to attract people who can live, work and even volunteer for essential services such as the fire department in certain communities.
The Mills administration is proposing to invest $50 million for affordable and workforce housing, which will come from the nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus funds for Maine from the American Rescue Plan.
The administration seeks to create 20,000 affordable, safe and accessible housing units across the state, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. To make a serious dent in that need – which has grown even more acute in the last year during a pandemic-driven real estate boom – housing advocates say the state should promote policies and provide funding to help developers build at least 1,000 housing units per year.
While we applaud the Mill administration’s efforts to fund affordable housing initiatives, it must also realize that one size does not fit all. We urge more federal money to be given to nonprofits such as Island Housing trust on MDI and to the Island Workforce Housing initiative on Deer Isle so that people on the ground can focus on the specific needs of their communities.