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As rents rise in rural areas, more Mainers seek homeownership help

In this July 26, 2011 photo, a sale pending sign is set outside a house in Bath, Maine.
Pat Wellenbach
In this July 26, 2011 photo, a sale pending sign is set outside a house in Bath, Maine.

Maine has received an influx of state and federal funds to help address its affordable housing crisis.

But it'll take more than taxpayer dollars to overcome the challenges felt in Maine and across the nation, said U.S. Department of Agriculture's administrator for rural housing services, Joaquin Altoro, who visited the state this week.

At a roundtable with state officials, non-profits and other housing organizations, Altoro said he’s heard from businesses large and small who say a lack of housing is contributing to their labor shortages.

The burden shouldn’t be on employers to develop workforce housing entirely on their own, he said.

"Let them create the revenue to pay the tax base to be participating in a resilient community," Altoro said. "But then what we need to do collectively is come up with a menu of ways in which employers can participate."

Both rural and more urban areas in Maine are experiencing a shortage of affordable housing units, said Rhiannon Hampson, the state director for USDA's rural development program, which hosted Wednesday's roundtable.

With a population of a little more than 1 million people, Maine can't afford to lose anyone due to a lack of housing, she added.

As more people have moved to the state during the pandemic and as wages have increased slightly, more Mainers are seeking out home loans through USDA's Rural Development program.

Maine's rural development office processed 175 single family home loans last year and 195 this year. Despite higher interest rates, Hampson said she believes more Mainers are interested in home ownership due to an unstable rental market.

"I honestly think some of the increase is coming because the rental prices have gone up much more dramatically," she said. "Even though we've seen a lot of housing prices go up, those rental increases are actually driving people toward thinking, how can I stabilize my financial future and my housing?"

During his visit, Altoro said he was impressed with how Maine has incorporated climate change targets in its housing goals. And he encouraged other states to do the same.