Dr. Robert Wasserstrom lives in Camden and belongs to Camden Rotary Club’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee.

 

Over the next half-dozen years, Maine will need 10,000 workers to replace retirees. Data from the Maine Department of Labor suggests that employers in Knox, Waldo and Lincoln Counties will be looking for about 800 additional hires. Where will they live?

One-third of our housing stock is already reserved for seasonal occupancy. New construction has flatlined. Even when homes come up for sale, the median price now reaches $370,000 — affordable for households making $150,000 per year with $75,000 saved for a down payment. That’s about twice what most Midcoast families earn.

Many communities are becoming “hollowed out” as young families leave, school populations collapse, and essential workers move away. Within six years, we’re likely to need 200 more homes and apartments that working people can afford.

In 2020, Camden Rotary Club adopted a strategic plan to support a vital, diverse regional economy. Workforce housing is one of our highest priorities. We are partnering with a grassroots community group to form the Midcoast Regional Housing Trust, which will address this problem.

Last month, we completed a housing needs assessment in 19 towns within a half-hour commute to Rockland: from Northport to Waldoboro and Washington to the coast. Here are three essential findings:

Our average age is far higher than in most of Maine. In the near future, a smaller pool of working households will have to pay for education and other public services.

Home health care aides and service employees earning less than $15 per hour will outnumber workers with middle-range jobs –— the kind that traditionally enabled them to buy a home.

Construction costs have risen 40 percent or more since 2019 and aren’t likely to come down soon. And the shortage of skilled labor has begun to bite hard. New homes? Builders will tell you, “Find me the labor and materials and I can start next week.” Otherwise, it’ll be three years.

Other coastal and island communities in Maine are grappling with similar issues. At least ten of them — including Mt. Desert Island, Deer Isle and North Haven — have formed housing trusts to make workforce housing permanently affordable.

Most housing trusts share a few core principles. Houses are bought or donated and then sold at below-market rates. Homeowners must meet specific income qualifications and live in them year-round.

With a few exceptions, trusts own the land in perpetuity, even after homes are sold. Homeowners sign a 99-year land lease with covenants enabling the trusts to recover their investments and subsidies at resale. Lease terms also set how much sellers will earn when their houses change hands. Sellers usually get enough money to buy another home on the open market; the rest of the sale price is reinvested in affordable housing.

All trusts depend to some degree on private and corporate donors, but many of them have formed partnerships with local and state governments. In 2019, the town of Kennebunkport transferred nearly five acres of tax-acquired property to the Kennebunkport Heritage Housing Trust, which it had set up the year before. With help from the Maine State Housing Authority, KHHT is now building 25 modular homes for families making less than $58,000.

Another example: Since 1989, the Freeport Housing Trust has provided rental housing to families displaced by commercial development. The developer donated $550,000 for low and middle-income housing in return for zoning approval. FHT now owns 183 rental units in eight developments for seniors, the disabled and households earning under $64,000.

Here in the Midcoast, we face a daunting challenge: building 200 workforce housing units within a few years. Only a handful of trusts in New England operate at that scale. The leader started in Burlington, Vt.

In 1984, the city of Burlington gave $200,000 to the fledgling Champlain Housing Trust. Later, it invested $1 million from city pension funds. Today, CHT owns 2,300 affordable rental units in three counties and holds land leases on more than 600 shared-equity homes. It is also self-sustaining. For the past ten years, it has earned 75% of its $19 million annual income from rents and property management; private donors contribute the rest.

Burlington and Freeport are valuable models for us. We need to create effective public-private partnerships that can provide new housing month after month, year after year. Of course, we hope that foundations and generous donors will help out. But long-term sustainability can’t depend on philanthropy. Our whole community — major employers, town governments, real estate professionals, financial institutions, and the rest of us — will need to be involved. We hope you’ll join us.

Dr. Robert Wasserstrom lives in Camden and belongs to Camden Rotary Club’s Economic and Workforce Development Committee. For a copy of the Midcoast Regional Housing Trust needs assessment, email midcoasthousing@gmail.com.