Rockland Main Street Poll: Housing shortage undermines economy

Recently, Rockland Main Street – a partnership of residents, business and organizational leaders and local government – surveyed their stakeholders about the housing crisis in our area. The survey asked them to focus on working families making between $45,000 and $90,000 a year.

22 business owners and organization leaders took part in our survey (not all answered all questions). Here are the key takeaways [See attached PDF for full survey results]:

  • Twenty out of 22 respondents (90 percent) rated worker housing as a “serious” or “very serious” issue.
  • Fourteen of 20 respondents (70 percent) said they had struggled to hire or retain employees in the past two years due to inadequate or unaffordable housing.
  • Sixteen out of 20 respondents (80 percent) indicated that the housing issue had a negative impact on their business or organization.

These results reflect a major challenge for our local economy. According to the Maine Department of Labor, employers in Rockland must replace up to 200 workers who will retire by 2028. That will not be easy. Local businesses and school districts are already reporting that good applicants routinely turn down job offers because of high housing costs.

In Rockland, a two-bedroom apartment now rents for $1,800 — up from $994 in 2017. The median home price has reached $285,000, which is affordable for households earning at least $115,000 a year and have $25,000 in cash for a down payment.

The situation is even worse in other parts of Knox County, with average home prices recently hitting $407,500. Working households – including teachers, health workers, skilled workers and many others – cannot afford to live here.

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Our survey also asked stakeholders about housing associations. A housing trust is a non-profit corporation that acquires buildings or land and permanently removes them from the commercial market. Through ownership restrictions, leases, and other measures, it reserves these properties for qualified working households. Successful housing trusts now exist on Mt. Desert Island, Deer Isle, North Haven, and in Orland, Freeport, Kennebunkport, and other coastal New England cities.

About half of the survey participants said they had never heard of housing associations. When asked if it would make sense to form one here, ten out of 22 respondents said yes and the others said they needed more information. Nobody thought it was a bad idea.

The survey highlights two valuable lessons. Housing shortages are “eroding” our local economy. Rockland employers are already feeling the bite. Commercial builders have not jumped in due to high construction costs, rising mortgage rates and a shortage of skilled workers.

The other lesson is that we need to build support for innovative solutions like housing foundations. As someone once said, we’re not going to solve the problem by doing the same things harder and faster. Respondents are open to new ideas and want to know what they are.

Earlier this year, the MidCoast Regional Housing Trust was formed to provide affordable housing for working families in our area. Last month, Rockland City Council named MCRHT as a partner in tackling the housing crisis here.

This is an important step in strengthening our community and securing its economic future. Now is the time to learn the lessons of New England’s successful homebuilders and bring their innovations here.

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David Gogel is CEO of Rockland Main Street. Robert Wasserstrom is Treasurer of MidCoast Regional Housing Trust, Inc.

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