A few weeks ago, Maine State Economist Amanda Rector gave us the bad news about housing. Prices in Maine have skyrocketed, while the number of homes for sale has dropped like a stone. The supply of houses for working families has dried up. Starter homes barely exist anymore.

In a recent column, Michael Mullins suggests that the solution is obvious: more people should move away. We’ll get back to his column later.

Here are the facts. Housing costs are hollowing out our community. From 2017 to 2020, the cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in Rockland jumped from $994 a month to $1,520. This year, it reached $1,800.

The median home price in Rockland is $285,000; in Knox County, it’s $407,500 — up 14 percent from a year ago. Working households — including teachers, health care workers, cops, carpenters and many others — can’t afford to live here. The lack of adequate housing “limits availability for [new workers] and workforce expansion,” Rector wrote, imperiling our economic future.

Over the next five years, employers will need to hire around 800 new workers just to replace retirees. But they face stiff headwinds. As much as 25 percent of qualified candidates turn down job offers because they can’t find an adequate place to live. The recent search for a new police chief in Rockland provides one high-visibility example.

Most working families are stuck in the “missing middle” of the housing market. Builders are busy with multimillion dollar homes — many construction companies have a two-year waiting list — but almost nothing is being built for middle-income households. Who can pay $300 a square foot, the going rate for new homes around here?

To make matters worse, nearly 40 percent of existing homes in our area are occupied only a few weeks per year. Clearly, the housing market is broken.

What can we do about it? Recently, a new non-profit corporation, the MidCoast Regional Housing Trust, Inc., announced its plans to develop workforce housing. MCRHT will start with multifamily rental properties in Rockland and expand to other areas as suitable properties become available.

What is a housing trust? Trusts acquire buildings or land and permanently remove them from the commercial market. Using tax credits, private donations and other resources, they keep housing costs as low as possible for people who meet income and other requirements.

Some trusts focus on rental properties, but many also build and sell homes. To ensure permanent affordability, home buyers accept certain deed restrictions and covenants. When they move on, for example, they must sell to another working household. Increases in home value are shared between the trust and the departing homeowner.

Both scenarios — rentals and ownership — allow residents to save up for a home on the traditional market. This approach is already working in Maine. Successful housing trusts operate in Kennebunkport, Freeport, North Haven, Deer Isle, Mt. Desert Island, Orland, the Boothbay region and other New England coastal towns.

In his column, Michael Mullins makes a convoluted argument that trusts actually make things worse. They may help a few people, he says, but they drive up the price for everyone else.

As proof, he compares Midcoast Maine to two unlikely places: Hong Kong and Buffalo, New York. If you want to buy an affordable house, he says, move to Buffalo. “The reason housing is cheap in Buffalo is simple,” he writes. “They have too much of it.”

As it happens, I grew up in a Rust Belt city not far from Buffalo and I know why housing there is cheap. In the 1960s, half of my high school class went to work in “the plant” — actually, three big factories operated by brand-name U.S. industrial giants. As in Buffalo, they supported our economy.

About 15 years ago, I was visiting my mother and decided to check on the plants. I was stunned. No walls, no roofs, no factories. A few rusty steel columns marked the old shop floors. Everything else had been shipped to China or the Philippines.

So if you want a cheap house, move to Buffalo. But if you need a job to pay for it, good luck. Trust me, Mr. Mullins, it’s not “kind of great,” as you suggest.

Albert Einstein once said that we can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got us into it. At some point, the housing market in Maine may improve for working families. But in the meantime, we’re going to need other solutions. Housing trusts are playing a critical role in finding those solutions.

Robert Wasserstrom, Ph.D, lives in Camden. He is the treasurer of MidCoast Regional Housing Trust, Inc.

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