Seasonal housing crunch intensifies

BAR HARBOR — A line formed outside the YWCA on Mount Desert Street beginning at 4:30 a.m. on Friday, April 1, while it was still dark. They were waiting to reserve a spot in a room at the nonprofit, which can house 43 women in summer.

This time of year, employers are scrambling to fill seasonal jobs, and workers are trying to figure out where to live while they are here.

“We open at 8 a.m.,” YWCA housing director Abby Robinson said, “and we start accepting phone calls then, too. So this year, I was on the phone, and one other person was helping people who were here in person. We were both taking reservations for rooms or beds for the season, and we were full by 8:14 a.m.”

Almost all of those looking for rooms at the YWCA have jobs for the season lined up, Robinson said. Many are foreign nationals holding H2B or J1 visas for seasonal work.

Those workers in the visa programs arrive mid-late May, Witham Family Hotels Human Resources Director Terri Swanson said. The J1 workers, who are full-time students in their home countries, are usually only here through August. The company begins the process of petitioning for the visas well in advance, she said, but waits to see how many jobs they can fill locally before requesting final numbers.

By the end of the day on April 1 at the YWCA, all the rooms were full, and the waiting list had more than 30 names.

“We’re proud and pleased to be able to offer what we can,” the group’s Executive Director Jackie Davidson said. “We wish we were able to do more. It’s heartbreaking every year to see how few of these people are going to get in.”

Some of those in line were local employers, reserving rooms on behalf of seasonal workers who hadn’t arrived yet. Robinson said they may change the rules in future years and stop allowing proxy reservations.

Some other seasonal business owners, both large and small, own some housing they can make available for employees. Usually they charge a fee.

“The price and scarcity of rentals is mind blowing,” Robinson said. “It seems like everything has turned into weekly rentals.”

The town Planning Board is taking up the related questions of employee housing, affordable housing and “transient accommodation” zones.

David C. Witham, who recently took over management of Witham Family Hotels from his father, wrote to the Planning Board ahead of an April 20 workshop meeting on housing and parking issues.

“We believe there is an opportunity to help address the [employee housing] issue through zoning and … identifying areas to allow dormitory style housing.” He said if building such housing were allowed, “our company would seriously explore the possibility to get our employees under one roof and be able to put back the housing we now have onto the market for the local pool.”

He said any stigma toward dormitories is usually misplaced, that “the seasonal workers who would take advantage of this housing are more often mature and responsible and have come to the states to make money to bring back home to their families.”

The town’s Planning Director Bob Osborne said Tuesday “there’s some support on the part of the Planning Board to consider responding” to Witham’s letter.

“It syncs pretty well with other comment we’ve gotten both at the Planning Board meetings and also HUB of Bar Harbor meetings,” he said, “where there’s quite a concern when major employers find themselves in a position where they have to buy up apartment houses just so they have a place to house their employees for three or four months of the year. Each time that happens, that’s another group of apartments that are not available to year-round individuals. And those are also likely the entry-level apartments.”

The Planning Board also is evaluating current requirements in the Land Use Ordinances for minimum lot size and minimum area per unit for multi-family buildings, he said, especially in areas served by municipal water and sewer.



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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Never miss a beat! Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and get top stories sent straight to your inbox.