The cost of housing has become a real challenge in some parts of Maine, including Bar Harbor. Increased tourism, more seasonal employees and a rise in short-term rentals have all pushed housing prices higher, which has forced some year-round residents to find rentals out of town.
Tara Russell drops crabcakes and sausage onto a sizzling grill inside the kitchen of Tailgate Sports & Pizza, a local bar and dinner spot in Bar Harbor. It’s late summer, and outside, the streets are packed with tourists.
As a cook, Russell works here year-round, from the busy summer months through the dead of winter. But she says starting three or four years ago, it has become harder to find a suitable rental for her and her daughter in town.
“Especially for a single parent. Or, really, anybody. I was looking for a one- or two-bedroom, maybe three, here in town. And you could not get anything for under $2,500, $2,400 a month, which is ridiculous,” she says.
Russell says she has had to move two or three times each year — from a summer rental to a winter rental, then back again. She says the constant search for housing is exhausting.
“So you really don’t get the sense of being at home. Because you’re always moving and changing things. You really can’t get settled and put pictures up. Because you know you’re leaving in six months. So it’s frustrating,” she says.
“It’s not a housing situation. It’s a crisis when we start to lose the heart of our community. And I want people to acknowledge it as that. And then I think that requires decisive action,” says Bar Harbor Town Councilor Gary Friedmann.
Friedmann says when he built his house in town more than 30 years ago, the neighborhood was bustling with families and kids — but not anymore. A recent study found that from 2011 to 2016, Mt. Desert Island lost more than 100 year-round housing units. In fact, the number of seasonal units on the island increased by nearly 10 percent.
“Now, when you walk down the street in December, January, February, it’s dark at night. There are no lights on in the houses, because they’re all seasonal rentals or employee housing,” he says.
Friedmann and others cite a number of reasons behind these trends. There’s the increasing popularity of Acadia National Park and limited space for development on MDI. Businesses point to the increasing number of seasonal workers, many on visas, in need of housing.
Kevin Desveaux, who runs the West Street Café, started purchasing buildings to house workers about five years ago.
“And we realized that if we were going to be housing people who were not going to be living here year-round, it had to be within a reasonable distance from the restaurant. As in walking distance — about a mile. So yeah, we started buying up some single-family houses. And we bought two and built one. It’s a challenge,” he says.
Desveaux now has 16 employees in housing. Other businesses say as many as 200 of their seasonal workers are housed in the same way. But that means there are fewer houses for year-round residents.
The situation has become even more serious due to a rise in short-term vacation rentals advertised through websites like Airbnb.
Various measures have estimated between about 300 and 1,000 vacation rentals in town, prompting an unsuccessful attempt to place an emergency moratorium on new applications for certain vacation rentals. Many residents say income from those units makes it possible for them to afford to live on the island.
Town councilor Erin Cough says she’s sympathetic to that perspective, but says the town does need some sort of regulation on short-term rentals as part of a larger housing plan.
“I personally know three people — between the three people, they own 12 different houses that they rent out weekly. You don’t necessarily need to be doing that level of what’s called ‘vacation rentals’ — it’s not. It’s commercial investment lodging,” she says.
The housing issue on Mount Desert Island is affecting businesses as well. Large employers such as MDI Hospital and Jackson Laboratory say that affordable housing is one of the most difficult issues their workers face.
Jackson Lab COO Catherine Longley says a recent survey showed that only 30 percent of her company’s employees live on the island.
“Based on our housing study that we did with employees, people would prefer to live closer to the lab. So we know that that more housing in the area is going to be critical,” she says.
The town has floated several proposals to deal with the issue. It now requires vacation rentals to be registered and pay a $250 annual fee. In July, the town council voted down an ordinance that would have allowed worker dormitories. Town councilors expect to take up a modified version of that proposal soon, and some are also pushing for modified zoning rules to allow construction of more housing, and for other restrictions on short-term rentals.
In mid-September, the town council will convene a workshop to discuss the issue once again and look at other options. But officials say major changes will likely take several months.
For Russell, the housing shortage has pushed her and her daughter out of town. After struggling to find any suitable units in Bar Harbor earlier this year, she moved to Southwest Harbor, on the other side of Mt. Desert Island. She’d still prefer to be in Bar Harbor, but is happy to have landed a rental house she likes.
“I mean, maybe it’s a little bit steep. But I was just thrilled. This was the best thing that could have happened. It’s a beautiful place. Great neighbors. I’m happy,” she says.
Still, Russell says she hopes that Bar Harbor can find a fix to the situation soon. She worries rental costs could potentially push workers even farther away from their jobs.