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How A Maine Island Town Is Fighting Its Housing Crunch

Nick Sambides Jr.
Bangor Daily News
Two tourists walk in downtown Stonington on Thursday. As tourism grows on Deer Isle, housing for year-round residents grows scarce.

Mike McLain cares about Stonington. As a Public Works Department worker, he helps maintain the town, and likes the people he’s met here. But the Bangor resident doesn’t see himself escaping his 1 1/2-hour commute anytime soon.“I have been looking at properties to rent, but there are not many here. Some places are about $200,000 [to buy] for a first-time homebuyer. Some places you can’t get, because they are too run down,” the 27-year-old McLain said. “Whatever I will do here, it will be expensive.”

That’s why a nonprofit organization, Island Workforce Housing, is planning to build at least 10 apartments within the next year, toward a goal of eventually building 30 units. With Deer Isle and Stonington facing an affordable housing shortage estimated at 85 units, the project will go a long way toward saving island businesses money and aggravation, said Henry Teverow, Stonington’s economic development director.

“We are trying to foster a healthier year-round community and economy,” said Teverow, a member of Island Workforce, which formed in 2018 to address what the group calls the island’s “severe” shortage of workforce housing.

“Housing, I think, is one of the most important parts of the puzzle that we have to figure out to get our year-round population and economy back up to where it should be again,” he added.

Deer Isle’s situation is reminiscent of Bar Harbor’s. Both are seeing an increase in seasonal housing fomented by the profitability of renting to tourists, and a subsequent loss in year-round dwellings and people to live in them.

From 1990 to 2017, the number of occupied year-round units in Deer Isle and Stonington decreased by 73 while the number of seasonal units increased by 223, from 1,130 to 1,353. The seasonal share of the housing stock — including seasonal rentals and owner-occupied seasonal homes — grew from 40 to 46 percent over that time, according to a study funded by the group.

This contributed to a shortage of year-round residents in Deer Isle and Stonington. Between 1990 and 2017, both experienced a 4 percent decrease in that population, from 3,081 to 2,969 residents, with Stonington’s year-round population declining 38 percent, from 1,660 to 1,032, according to the study.

Island businesses compensate for the loss of year-round workers and housing in costly ways. One island plumbing company bought a van to help bring workers in from the mainland. A lobster processing business bought housing for its workforce, Teverow said.

Stonington’s town government hired McLain, at $17.50 an hour, partly because of the lack of available workers on the island, said his boss, public works foreman Shaun Eaton. The lack of a local workforce became particularly apparent during last week’s windstorm.

Fallen trees left McLain stuck on the road an extra 1 1/2 hours on his way to work — a struggle he wouldn’t have had to endure if he lived in town, McLain said. Eaton would likely be living off-island too but he bought a house from his father.

“Locals cannot afford to buy housing down here. It is too expensive and not targeted toward young people who grew up here and want to stay here,” Eaton said. “Rents are really hard to find and, even if you can find one, it’s very expensive.”

Although Island Workforce Housing wants to build 10 units next year, it might be years before it does. The group needs to raise $600,000 to purchase 43 acres on Oliver’s Pond near Sunset Crossroad and build the 10 or so units, Teverow said.

McLain, who bought an extra vehicle to save money on the commute, a gas-miserly 1996 Toyota Avalon, said he hopes he can find a place to live in town. He and his fiancee have four children, so he will need someplace spacious.

“I plan on staying here for quite a while,” he said.

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.