ROCKLAND — The lack of affordable housing is a worsening crisis that left individuals and families in desperate situations, while also contributing to a labor shortage that is hampering economic growth for the Midcoast.

The lack of affordable housing is not new in the Rockland area. But it worsened in the past two decades and deepened further with the pandemic that led to a significant influx of people moving to the region and buying homes for significantly more than their assessed value, and more than most local residents can afford.

Efforts to build new housing for lower income residents is often met with opposition from neighbors. That opposition continues in Rockland, even in the midst of the crisis.

Midcoast Habitat for Humanity is currently proposing building eight rental efficiency/one-bedroom residences that will each be 500 square feet; and three rental duplexes that will each have a one-bedroom (1,000 square-foot) and three-bedroom (1,200-square foot) residences on nearly 11 acres at 165 Talbot Ave.

Neighbors who oppose the project say the project is not in character with the neighborhood, claim it will create worsening drainage problems for homes downstream, and harm a field where there is wildlife, including insects. More than a dozen signs that say “Save Firefly Field” are posted on the front lawns of the opponents.

Habitat’s engineer said the development will not add water to the neighbors downstream. He said if more than one acre of wetland is affected by the development, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection will review the project for storm water management. If less than one acre is affected, the city will hire an engineer, at Habitat’s expense, to review the storm water plan.

While most of the criticism of the project has been about possible drainage concerns, there has also been an undercurrent of criticism of the people who would be occupants of the home.

At a Council meeting in May, neighbor Beverly Cowan argued that the project was not keeping with the special house she and her husband restored and the special neighborhood.

“We enjoy our privacy. I suspect the new neighbors won’t respect our need for serenity and security with dogs barking and people yelling,” she said.

Another person opposed to the project telephoned the newspaper and suggested Habitat should look at alternative locations to Talbot Avenue, suggesting the development be located near Wal-Mart, where people who don’t have cars could walk to work.

Many arguments used against the Talbot Avenue project are the same used in 2000, when the 20-apartment complex on Eliza Steele Drive — known as the Meadows — was proposed. The project was eventually approved and has housed low-income families for two decades.

Neighbors in 2000 complained that the Meadows would not be compatible with the neighborhood, said it worsen drainage problems, and some neighbors voice opposition that some of the housing was set aside for people who were homeless or had mental illness.

Then Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch spoke at a 2000 hearing, and noted he filed for a housing grant earlier that year that highlighted the dramatic housing shortage brought on by job growth from MBNA expanding in the region and attracting more affluent people who were driving up the price of housing.

Habitat is also in the process of developing 12 single-family homes on Philbrick Avenue. Construction began in November 2019, but was slowed by the pandemic. One home was completed and occupied, five others are largely constructed and three others are in early construction.

The last low-income apartment development built in Rockland was the 26-unit Stevens Green on Lovejoy Street, which opened in September 2005. Then Maine House Authority Director Dale McCormick lauded the project, saying “affordable housing allows firefighters, teachers, police officers and service personnel to live in their communities.”

The deepening crisis is the result of housing costs far outpacing the wages being paid to local workers. The shortage is not limited to low income residents.

The median wage in Knox County for 2020 was $37,021, according to the Maine Department of Labor. The median wage for the 1,350 Knox County residents working in food preparation and service jobs in 2020 was $25,762. This was down from the pre-pandemic 2019 figure of $28,518.  The median wage for office and administrative workers were less than $37,000 in 2020.

The Maine State Housing Authority reported that the income needed to afford to rent a two-bedroom home in Knox County in 2020 was $47,800.

Home ownership is also becoming more out of reach for Midcoast residents. The most recent Maine Housing Authority affordability study found the median Knox County home price in 2020 was $265,000 and the income needed to afford that was $70,941.

In the ensuing pandemic, the median price for a single-family home in Knox County jumped to $337,500 as of this summer.

The escalating sale prices of home also fueled the sharply higher valuations for certain neighborhoods in Rockland last year. South End homeowners experienced the sharpest increases, with some nearly doubling in values, while other neighborhoods such as the Samoset Road and Dodge Mountain saw reductions.

This increased their property taxes and placed pressure on longtime residents, many who are on fixed incomes. Assessment requirements and the lack of state aid to local schools — which is behind Rockland’s higher than average tax rate — are under state jurisdiction.

The affordable housing shortage significantly impacted the ability of businesses to hire workers.

Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Peaco said the housing issue is one of many factors that continue to add to the labor crunch locally.

“While I don’t have a good way to measure it with certainty, I feel confident in saying that things are not getting better in this regard, Peaco said.

The long term solution would be to add affordable housing locally, he said, but acknowledged that is not something that happens overnight.

“There is great interest in our area from those who would like to live and work here, and adding to our local housing stock with affordable rentals (apartments, condos, etc.) and homes to purchase would help move things in a positive direction, of course,” Peaco said.

MaineHealth spokeswoman Jenifer Harris said the housing situation is impacting the ability to attract new team members. MaineHealth is one of the largest employers in the Midcoast.

Rockland Mayor Ed Glaser said housing pressures are more than just providing affordable housing for people who live here.

Rockland’s population declined by 361 since the 2010 U.S. Census, falling to 6.936 in 2020. The city’s population reached a peak of 9,284 residents in 1950 and declined in all but one Census since then.

“As Rockland becomes even more attractive to people who don’t live here full time, whether they are summer residents or people who invest in short-term rental properties, we change who is using our limited supply of housing. People who want to live here full time can’t afford it, families can’t afford it, workers can’t afford it,” Glaser said.

“I’m not sure what we can do to reverse the trend of the last 20 or more years, but this just shows that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. If we continue to lose population, we lose the energy that makes this the place we want to live. Rockland has never been just a summer community, and if it continues, we will turn our back on our history and what has made Rockland the economic engine of the Mid-coast. I don’t like it, we have to turn it around,” Glaser said.

The City Council has taken several steps recently to try to find solutions.

The city is looking for citizens to serve on a committee to look at ways to develop the upper floors on Main Street. That committee was first proposed to be created in 2017, but did not come up with recommendations. Another committee is once again looking at converting the former McLain School into housing, once the city acquires it next year from Regional School Unit 13.

The volunteer McLain housing committee received proposals in May 2019 from Penquis CAP for affordable rental housing units for people 55 years old and older; Avesta Housing of Portland for affordable housing for the same age group; and Wishrock, a national company, for 23 affordable housing units in the building. Nothing progressed on that since the city still does not own the property.

Tia Anderson, the executive director of Midcoast Habitat, said “collaborative opportunities such as the one we have proposed for Talbot are a good idea.”

“In addition to rehabs of older housing stock when affordable, multi-units where possible. It is going to take a multi faceted approach of diverse housing options throughout our community to make an impact on the need for affordable, accessible and attainable housing,” Anderson said.

The Knox County Homeless Coalition asked Knox County for $2.7 million of its Federal Recovery Act money to purchase 6 Madelyn Lane in Rockport. The property consists of six acres and two former medical office buildings that housed Pen Bay Family Medicine and Pen Bay Pediatrics. Those offices have relocated to the new office building on the PBMC campus.

The property would be converted to approximately 30 housing units for the homeless and “integrated services from our web of partners.”

The county expects to considers uses of its money starting in September.

There are 29 low income housing apartment communities offering 675 affordable apartments for rent in Knox County.

Anderson said Habitat typically receives four applications per month, but also receive inquiries for housing opportunities daily via its website and phone calls. She said unfortunately, Habitat’s program isn’t for everyone.

Some housing is taken up by short-term rentals. A review of the Airbnb website lists more than 300 places in Knox County.

Rockland placed a cap on non-owner occupied short-term rentals in 2018, but not on owner occupied ones. There are currently 42 non-owner short-term rentals, three under the cap. There are two property owners who applied for permits, and they will appear before the Planning Board. There are also 19 owner-occupied short-term rentals in Rockland.

The City Council approved an ordinance in March to allow non-attached accessory dwelling units after three years of proposing such a change. The change was met by fierce opposition from residents who claimed it would harm the character of neighborhoods and raised what they said were concerns about creating storm water management problems.

Supporters, however, said the additional housing was needed. Resident Andy O’Brien said the change could help regular working people and could help homeowners who could earn some income from renting an accessory dwelling unit.

The Council did prohibit accessory units from residential AA zones which is considered the most protective residential zoning in the city.

One unattached accessory unit was already built, located on South Street. Assistant Code Officer Wyatt Philbrook said there is a lot of interest from other property owners who are considering converting barns and garages into accessory units.

The Council did not prohibit the units, however, from being used for short-term rentals.

The Council also approved an ordinance to place conditions on the sale of tax-acquired properties. In July the Council set conditions on the sale of 56 Willow St. that would give preference to making the housing affordable. The conditions include that the owner must be a resident of Knox County, must live in the home and household income must not exceed 150% of the median Knox County income (about $100,000). The city has yet to formally place that property out to bid.

The city acquires a few properties each year for non-payment of taxes, but often returns those to the previous owners.

Also adding the housing shortage is the sale of apartment buildings, where tenants are being forced out because the market has been so hot, and the new owners want higher rents.

Many tenants and landlords were reluctant to talk on the record about the rising rental costs.

Midcoast Habitat’s Anderson said landlords know the market is tight, and many moved to short term rentals or rent increases across the region.

One landlord in Rockland’s South End said she rents a six-bedroom, two bathroom home for $1,100 a month. She said the home has been rented to same family for about 10 years, and the rent actually brings in a little less than the expense of owning it.

She said the property is being sold and the family was able to find a place in Thomaston.

Another local landlord who oversees multiple properties said “Rockland has been discovered. New England is the place to be (COVID-19 opened many eyes) and Midcoast Maine and Rockland in particular is very desirable.”

He said families are moving out of Rockland because of high taxes, but many retirees are moving in. Other reasons he sees for the shortage include new tenants who expect more than the dingy outdated rental stock that has existed, everyone wanting a piece of the pie and plain greed.

Rockland’s tax rate is higher than the statewide average for several reasons. Service centers provide more services but, in addition, Rockland is penalized by the state’s education funding formula, which provides aid based on the value of properties not the residents ability to pay. An effort by state Rep. Valli Geiger, D-Rockland, to change that did not succeed in the Legislature this past session.

The rental market is very competitive, the anonymous landlord said, which translates to seasoned multi-unit owners either having to upgrade their properties or sell them to “young guns coming in.” Both translate into higher rents, he said.

Multiple tenants said the buildings they lived in around the region were sold, and they were told to leave because the owners felt it would be easier to sell a building with no prior tenants.

One person reported that there is a family that lived at a campground all summer and has unsuccessfully found a dwelling for the fall when school starts.

Kathleen Gilbert said she lived in Camden for 30 years and raised two children there. She said her 23-year-old is trying to relocate to the Midcoast, preferably Rockland or Thomaston.

“We have been actively looking for rental places there and beyond, and we are willing to pay up to $1,200. When something becomes available it is gone within an hour. We have also been willing to look at purchasing, but things that are $225,000 were $150,000 six months ago and need a tremendous amount of repair.

“Not only do prices feel ridiculously elevated, we know that it is very difficult to find tradespeople to do the work, so that option is out. Not only is it overpriced to rent or buy, there is very little inventory and a very high demand. No wonder we have a labor shortage,” Gilbert said.

A tenant who rents in Thomaston said she lived in an apartment building since April 2020, but five months after moving in, the property was sold, and this occurred two more times since then. The rent is increasing $130 per month. She said the apartment is becoming unaffordable on her income working at a daycare.

The Midcoast Message Board has numerous posts from people seeking housing without success.  The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates there is a statewide shortage of more than 19,000 rental units for people with low income.

Lower-income tenants also reported to the newspaper that many landlords will not accept the government subsidy known as Section 8. On average, Section 8 contributes $600 per month to landlords on behalf of eligible tenants.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report in March 2018 that found many low income families may be able to make housing payments, but it consumes so much of their income that they do not have enough for other necessities, including food. The report said those families are, however, are often eligible for government assistance programs that can partially offset the financial shortfall.

The Pew Charitable Trust also issued a report in 2018 that showed the number of people transitioning from renting to home ownership declined after the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

The U.S. Census also reported that from 2010 to 2020, the number of housing units in Knox County increased by only 2%, an additional 511 units.

One warning issued by the landlord was that the housing financed through the Housing and Urban Development program, known as 515, which were constructed 25 to 30 years ago, will eventually be scooped up by investors and made into condominiums or high end apartments.

This program offered mortgage loans to developers to provide affordable housing for families, elderly people and people with disabilities who have very low to moderate incomes.

The crisis of a lack of affordable housing is not limited to the Rockland area. The Maine Legislature approved a bill in June that created a commission that will look to “increase housing opportunities in Maine by studying zoning and land use restrictions.”

The committee includes former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree who represents the governor’s office as director of the governor’s office of policy innovation and the future.

The 15-member commission is directed to issue its recommendations by Nov. 3.