Housing crunch a shared burden for Hancock County towns

By Jill Goldthwait

Hancock County towns are different in many ways. They are coastal and inland, with populations ranging from over 8,000 to just a few dozen. Ellsworth has a city center that serves the whole county, while other municipalities have almost no commercial activity. But many towns share the same problem: Housing.

Back in the day, Mainers who had one would move to camp and rent out their house for the summer. Rental money augmented their income, and they remained for all purposes year-round residents of their towns. No harm, no foul. Then platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO encouraged more short-term use of what was once residential housing, accelerated both on the coast and inland by the pandemic.

Vacation rentals became so lucrative that properties were quickly bought up for that purpose. That made even more of a dent on year-round housing. Next was investors from away, some of whom had never set foot in a Hancock County town, buying multiple properties for vacation rental use only. The aggregate of various types of vacation rentals has made it notoriously difficult to find a year-round home in many parts of Maine. And if you can find one? Good luck affording it.

Deer Isle’s Island Nursing Home, built to make it possible for Deer Isle/Stonington seniors to stay on their island even if they could no longer live independently, closed last October after 40 years serving the community. Housing for 60 seniors vanished. The insurmountable problem, amplified by COVID, was finding and retaining staff.

Lack of affordable housing was cited as part of the dilemma. The chair of a task force organized to explore reopening the nursing home put the community on notice that it would need local cooperation with housing availability and affordability to get the job done.

Maine Housing’s Homeowner Affordability Index for 2019 shows every town in Hancock County underwater — having a median income that would not support a median home price — except five: Ellsworth, Winter Harbor, Penobscot, Orland and Sullivan. Would-be buyers who have decided to bite the bullet and pay more for a house than they ever thought they would find themselves outbid by others making offers well above the asking price.

In Blue Hill, a businessman who owned several properties and was purchasing another was thinking about “the impact the housing shortage is having.” That was three years ago. Matters have not improved since then. One Swan’s Island native said all available housing stock out there had been bought up, mostly by people from out of state, “and now they’re starting on the land.” Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider called housing “a huge issue for us.” In 2019, CEO Katy Longley of Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory said, “The biggest issue I’ve seen is the housing crisis.”

MDI schools are losing students due to the lack of year-round housing. Families are reported to be living in campgrounds through the fall, shifting to winter housing when the tourists depart. The median home value on MDI in July 2021 was $430,000. The median asking price was $657,000. MDI towns are also struggling to fill public safety positions for police, fire and other emergency services. If you can’t afford to live on the island, why undertake the commute to work there when there are departments closer to home also looking for help?

Maine is not unique. Rhode Island legislators are working on 11 bills to mitigate their housing crisis. In Vermont, property transfer data shows a 38 percent increase in out-of-state buyers between 2019 and 2020. The median price for a Vermont home is about $100,000 more than a family making the median income can afford.

The city of Ellsworth is land-rich, the biggest municipality in Maine. For over a decade the city has been retooling everything from zoning ordinances to housing infrastructure (sewer and water) and has permitted several hundred new units with a mix of single-family, duplex and multi-unit dwellings. It is still not enough.

This year, Maine House Speaker Ryan Fecteau introduced a bill to improve housing availability and affordability. The bill would implement the work of a legislative housing commission that Fecteau chaired. Much of the bill targets municipal zoning that is thought to curb housing development.

Maine municipalities recognize the problem, but they are disconcerted by Fecteau’s proposed solution. Kate Dufour, advocate for the Maine Municipal Association who was also a member of the housing study commission, says Fecteau’s bill undermines local control, a cardinal sin against Maine home rule. Some legislative Republicans prefer a market-based solution over a regulatory one.

Maine municipal officials recognize that denser development, long restricted in many small towns, is essential to affordability and helps with transportation challenges. However, they would like the opportunity to devise solutions of their own making rather than have rules imposed by the state.


Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.


Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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