By Ted Koffman
This year, so many of us gratefully celebrated the 100th anniversary of Acadia National Park and paid our respects to the heroic benefactors who persevered to create this perpetual gift to America. Today, the park and Mount Desert Island communities work for the quality of the park experience and to protect its extraordinary resources as we see increased visitation.
Friends of Acadia and its robust volunteer program are restoring infrastructure that Congress is unable to support, and the Island Explorer bus system reduces the threat of traffic overloads while giving tourists and residents positive peak-season enjoyment.
While the ecology and scenic quality of the park seem to be in good shape, the fabric of MDI’s institutions, traditions and activities that define and maintain our sense of place is hollowing out due to the loss of year-round residents, the lifeblood of thriving communities. Some 86 percent of the island’s workforce could not afford to live here if they had not purchased or inherited their house or land years ago. As Don Graves, an Island Housing Trust (IHT) board member and a member of a five generation Northeast Harbor family said, “It’s getting darker in our communities … fewer year-around residents live in town, and fewer homes are lighted off-season.”
Like a keel on a sailboat, the year-round workforce is essential to keeping MDI stable and on course to a strong future. Our year-round residents are vital to sustaining viable communities on the island. Their talents, volunteer time and participation in the economy as employees, employers and customers make life better for everyone. However, the lack of affordable housing makes it harder to attract and retain highly skilled workers. As fewer families live on MDI, there are fewer students and parents to support our schools. The smaller pool of available people to serve our towns also impacts our fire departments, ambulance services, hospitals, libraries and many other service organizations that are crucial to our quality of life.
The 2005 MDI Tomorrow workforce housing project group warned, “Due to rising property values and taxes, more of MDI’s workforce may be forced to move off the island.” Sure enough, according to current U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of jobs on the island, 5,200, has remained about the same over the last 10 years.
Meanwhile, a major housing shift has taken place. Some 60 percent of the workforce on MDI does not live on the island, but commutes from Hancock, Washington, Waldo, Franklin and Penobscot counties. In addition, compared to the rest of the state, Hancock County has fewer affordable houses, with 35 percent of homeowners spending more than 30 percent of their household income on mortgage costs, and nearly 50 percent of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on rental costs.
In 1984, Peggy Rockefeller, a devoted conservationist, recognized the importance of preserving the year-round population of workers and their families in order to retain a high quality of life on MDI for all of us. She understood the consequences of a growing gap between housing costs and the wages paid to many island employees. In response to this problem, Rockefeller and her husband, David, donated 68 acres of land on Ripples Hill “for workforce residents.” Over the last decade, Island Housing Trust has supported the development of nine energy-efficient houses at Ripples Hill and assisted 25 other island residents purchase affordable housing.
As workforce economist John Dorrer said at a recent IHT gathering, “It’s clearer than ever that the MDI community as a whole needs to initiate and sustain a discussion about how to find qualified employees for the current and future workforce, and creating housing opportunities affordable to the workforce is essential to accomplish this goal.”
IHT is encouraged to learn that the League of Towns has added affordable workforce housing as one of its top five priorities. IHT urges business owners, nonprofit organizations, government entities and citizens to collaborate with us and their communities to identify and develop solutions that meet the need for year-round affordable workforce housing on MDI. Meaningful progress will require an island-wide, long-term initiative, much like the initiative launched by the founding benefactors of Acadia National Park 100 years ago.
Ted Koffman serves on the board of the Island Housing Trust, a nonprofit organization that promotes and enables viable year-round island communities by advancing permanent workforce housing on Mount Desert Island. Visit islandhousingtrust.org.