Although the pandemic has boosted the population of rural Down East Maine, the sudden influx of new residents caused Washington County’s already severe housing shortage to skyrocket as much of the available housing stock was clawed back.

Worse still, the housing scarcity in Maine’s second-poorest county — where the poverty rate hovers around 20% and the median household income is below $45,000 — puts the neediest residents at a huge disadvantage in the race. looking for accommodation.

Standing by an aging, unwintered motorhome – their home, at least until spring – Arthur Worster and his partner Bryttani Ball said they never expected to be left without a place to live. Worster lived intermittently in his grandparents’ East Machias home for 20 years, the last with Ball and his two teenagers. After Worster’s grandfather died, the property, passed down from generation to generation, was transferred to another relative who decided to sell when the property market was boiling. Although appraised at just $75,044, the home is surrounded by homes selling for up to $430,000.

Worster and Ball had 45 days to find a new home.

“We’re losing everything,” Ball said as he watched Worster and his sons collect salvaged lumber from a demolished garage to begin building a house on Worster’s empty adjoining lot. “And it’s not just us. We found out that there are about 20 other people here in East Machias who are dealing with the same thing.

Officials across the county report that their housing inventory is near zero. Properties of all price ranges have been swept away in the buying frenzy, either by new, wealthier year-round residents fleeing congested towns to enjoy the bucolic landscape of the Down East, or by locals eager to cash in while prices soared. Affordable homes within the reach of middle- and low-income buyers are particularly hard to find, according to real estate agents.

Debbie Holmes, a Lubec-based estate agent, said her selling prices were “insanely high”. A home she sold in 2016 for $285,000 came back on the market this year and sold for $650,000.

The lack of affordable housing has hampered an innovative program to provide housing for migrants. Mano en Mano, based in Milbridge, is a nonprofit agency that provides services to seasonal migrants from as far away as Haiti and Central and South America, who harvest wild blueberries in the summer and make wreaths in winter. The scheme, called ‘Welcome Home Down East’, would allow migrants who have been offered year-round work a way to purchase a home through a five-year lease-to-own agreement underwritten by Mano en Mano.

Launched as the pandemic hit, plans to buy seven decent starter homes stalled, according to the group’s housing director, Elan Gabel-Richards.

“Before, you could buy a reasonable house for less than $120,000 that was, you know, not perfect, but something you could move into and get a loan to buy pretty easily,” Gabel-Richards said. “Now a $90,000 house for sale needs to be completely gutted and renovated.”

Compounding the problem for buyers and renters, many of the best homes that have been purchased during the pandemic — sometimes at double the assessed value — have been converted to vacation and short-term rentals. A search on Apartments.com found only five rentals in the entire county; three of them were tiny efficiency or one-bedroom apartments, ranging from $800 to $1,600 a month, advertised as short-term rentals for traveling nurses and professionals.

Machias City Manager Bill Kitchen isn’t surprised.

“Overall, there’s no low-cost housing, there’s no high-cost housing. There is no intermediate housing right now,” Kitchen said. “We have doctors from the hospital who are looking, we commute by plane … The new dean of [the University of Maine at Machias] desperately trying to find a home.

After a fruitless search to buy a house when he was hired last year, Machias’ new police chief, Keith Mercier, lived for two months in one of the university’s student dormitories. He has since rented a house from Cutler, another temporary solution until he and his wife can find a house to buy closer to Machias. In the meantime, they have kept their home in Orrington and Mercier “goes back and forth” on some weekends.

“Washington County as a whole really needs to take a hard look and put our heads together to come up with some kind of solution.” Mercier said. “It’s good if you can get people here, but it won’t work so well if they don’t have a place to live.”

Eastport City manager Kate Devonshire, a Massachusetts native who moved east two years ago, was also not immune. With no rentals in the popular artists’ enclave and tourist destination, a temporary stay at her parents’ retirement home in downtown Eastport lasted two years – and counting.

“I had no intention of staying with my parents,” Devonshire said. “It’s almost like a joke because I’m the city manager. I’m supposed to save the city, you know?

For low-income, at-risk or marginalized people, the housing crisis is no joke, and much more than an inconvenience. In many cases, living with relatives is not an option for a variety of reasons: no local family ties, not enough room or unhealthy housing situations, to name a few. With few resources, many are forced to go it alone.

If they meet eligibility criteria, low-income residents can apply for a Maine Housing Authority Section 8 housing choice voucher, which can pay up to 70% of monthly rent. If that sounds too good to be true, sadly, that’s partly because of the housing boom, but also because social housing development in the county is stalling.

According to the Maine Housing Authority’s latest report, there are only 42 affordable housing complexes in the entire county with a total of 56 units available, but most units are only open to people with disabilities or over the age of 62 years old. There were only seven units open to the general population. So far, little has been done to alleviate the shortage.

Over the past 16 years, although MaineHousing has supported 326 developments statewide, only four new developments have been added in Washington County and are limited. Three are supportive housing for municipal, non-profit or tribal use; only one is a rental complex and it is on the Passamaquoddy reservation, available exclusively to tribal members.

In addition to the Section 8 program’s long waiting list, homes must meet federal housing quality standards and rent limits — about $640 for a one-bedroom apartment. Because participation in the program is voluntary for landlords and demand is so high, typical Washington County rents have soared well beyond the limits, according to Charley Martin-Berry, executive director of Community Caring Collaborative, a social services support network.

“It’s kind of like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket,” Martin-Berry said. “Even when you get up that list and have a good one in hand, it’s hard to find a spot.”

Owners run businesses and make profitable choices, but the consequences for some of the most vulnerable populations can be catastrophic – homelessness or worse. Because Washington County has no tent cities or general-purpose homeless shelters, Martin-Berry said the country’s homeless are “invisible,” but they’re there- down couch surfing or, in the direst of circumstances, living in abandoned buildings and sheds.

“These rental sheds quickly become housing for people,” Martin-Berry said. “And it just says on it, it’s not a house, it’s not for habitation, but people absolutely shelter them.”

Washington County has a shelter – for victims of domestic violence. The agency provides victims with temporary shelter, historically, for three to four months, working with them to obtain housing vouchers and find permanent housing. Marcie Dean, housing director for the Hancock and Washington Counties Next Step Domestic Violence Project, said victims are in the shelter much longer now, often twice as long, looking for housing. permanent.

“The owners just aren’t really open to good people. [from domestic violence victims] and they have this monopoly right now where they can choose what kind of tenants they have,” Dean said.

For Washington County residents whose livelihoods cannot be moved, such as those who make their living on the waters of the Down East, the struggle to find housing is compounded. Even before about 80 new residents moved in, some fishermen in the small coastal town of Jonesport had left to seek housing in Washington County, forcing them to travel long distances to get to work every day. days.

This is an additional difficulty for lobsters which start their days well before sunrise. It’s also a hardship for the town, according to Jonesport Mayor William Milliken, because fishermen bring their families when they move.

“It would be great to be able to house them here,” Milliken said. “We want their children; we want them to raise their families here.

Faced with few or no viable housing alternatives, residents across the county sometimes give up and move out altogether. Experts say the exodus of residents, coupled with the arrival of newcomers, is one of the best indicators of gentrification, a process that can strain resources and change the character of communities. Tracking in-migration and out-migration since COVID has become a priority for county officials worried about the future of the Down East.

The Machias-based Sunrise Economic Council works across many sectors to create jobs and promote economic growth across the county. Although this may be difficult to quantify, according to its executive director, Charles Rudelitch, it has certain metrics to track emigration. Rudelitch said paying attention to these numbers as well as other economic indicators will help community leaders avoid potential pitfalls of gentrification.

“It’s my hometown. I have an idea of ​​the difficulties that Washington County’s economic challenges have created,” Rudelitch said. “I think more prosperity would be a wonderful thing for the area. But gentrification that relies entirely on investment income from outside, it doesn’t create the same kinds of opportunities here. I think that could be very problematic. It could increase the cost of living without providing the means to earn more money. money for the people who live here.

This story was originally posted by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization. To get regular Monitor coverage, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.