News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, May 31, 2018
Affordable housing group reconvenes to tackle issue

by Anne Berleant

The high cost of housing in Deer Isle and Stonington for young, working families caused a dormant Island Community Housing group to meet May 23 at the Community of Christ Church.

Formed in 2005 to research affordable workforce housing on the island and come up with possible solutions, the group petered out several years later during the nationwide economic downturn.

“A lot of people showed up concerned,” co-founder Stu Kestenbaum recalled. “Solutions seemed to evade us [but] we learned a lot.”

A 2006 study by Hallowell-based Planning Decisions reported that while the island’s population had been relatively stable over the past 15 years, there was a long-term change in existing housing moving from year-round to seasonal.

The study, funded by the Town of Stonington and a Maine Community Foundation grant, also pointed out that the island was one of the least affordable communities in Maine, with those 45 and younger in the greatest need for affordable housing.

“You have people working at $15 an hour,” founding member Mike Wood said. “They’re driving over the [Deer Isle-Sedgwick] bridge every morning. They’d love to have their kids going to the school but they can’t afford it.”

The meeting, attended by about 18 citizens including real estate agents, bankers, planners, selectmen, town managers, nonprofit employees and concerned community members, was designed by Wood and Kestenbaum as a brainstorming session, with no or limited debate on suggestions offered.

Ideas included using the former Greenlaw trailer park on Airport Road, currently on the market for about $700,000, according to those present, as a possible housing site. Due North surveying company owner Linda Campbell noted she had two clients with large tracts of land who want to give it to affordable housing.

“If you had 50 houses, 50 young families, that changes a lot, in terms of all the issues the island is facing,” Kestenbaum said.

These issues include aging fire department and ambulance volunteers, a decreasing school population and a shortage of employees.

“It’s a whole generation we’re missing,” Wood said.

One example was sitting at the table. Pat Shepard, a Stonington native employed by Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, who crosses the bridge with his wife, also employed on the island, each morning.

“At the first opportunity I moved back,” he said. “I work on the island but live in Surry.” The reason, he said, was the cost of island housing.

“The market is getting hot, people are wanting to live here,” economic development committee member Roger Bergen said. “But everyone is going to Surry or Sedgwick.”

Airbnb rentals are a new issue that has affected the housing market since the group first met in 2005. “[They] are a huge problem,” Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher said.

In speaking with community groups, such as the chamber of commerce, while working on the Stonington comprehensive plan approved this year, “the number one issue was housing,” Bergen said.

Morgan Eaton, of the Island Agency, noted that 10 to 15 applications come in for every rental. “It’s a tight market,” she said.

“Everything’s connected and interwoven so you don’t know which thread to pull on,” Ron Beard said.

Island Community Housing is incorporated as a non-501(C)(3) nonprofit, which means it can apply for grants but private donations are not tax exempt. Its founding members are Wood, Kestenbaum, Beard and John Steed.