The Working Waterfront

Op-ed: MDI housing crisis affects much more

Community nonprofit focuses on Northeast Harbor

By Kathy Miller
Posted 2022-12-13
Last Modified 2023-02-02

The town of Mount Desert asserts in clear terms an underlying problem that radiates out into so many other issues.

“The high cost for housing is currently one of the primary driving forces behind many of the issues facing the town of Mount Desert,” the town’s comprehensive plan argues.

“An appropriate balance of housing should be sought after to support a healthy economy, and it should be kept affordable in order to avoid displacing community members to outlying areas,” the plan continues.

“Housing should be developed in a way that improves connections between and among community members to create vibrant year-round villages. It should not degrade or exhaust the natural resources that are integral to the success of this community, such as fragmenting or destroying important wildlife habitat, polluting or exhausting water supplies, or negatively impacting either natural or built scenic resources.”

Our approach to achieving our mission runs along parallel tracks: supporting local businesses and creating affordable year-round housing…

These assertions are consistent with Mount Desert 365’s mission and purpose—to foster a sustainable year-round community while preserving its natural environment. Our approach to achieving our mission runs along parallel tracks: supporting local businesses and creating affordable year-round housing opportunities to restore the year-round population.

The lack of housing affordable to the year-round residents who are essential to keeping our communities intact—municipal and public safety workers, medical staff, teachers, bank tellers, restaurant staff, tradespeople, and so many more—is an emerging crisis.

There are three compelling reasons we are focusing our efforts on creating housing in the village of Northeast Harbor, part of the town of Mount Desert:

• proximity to local businesses
• access to utilities
• preservation of natural areas and undeveloped land

Northeast Harbor is the commercial and municipal center of the town with the greatest concentration of storefront businesses. Having more people living here will support existing businesses in the quiet season and may make the difference in keeping them open. It may also make the difference in attracting the businesses many people have told us they want.

Access to utilities is the second reason. It will save money in developing the properties where water, sewer, and power are already in place, and most importantly eliminate the environmental disruption of digging wells and installing septic systems.

These housing issues have been a concern for decades, and Island Housing Trust continues to make real headway. But the need is still great, and the pandemic and the high financial returns of short-term rentals have only exacerbated the problem.

We know that businesses and organizations are experiencing hiring issues due to the year-round housing shortage. While we may not have homeless people sleeping on the streets, we do know of individuals and families pushed out of their rentals in the spring, living in their cars to finish the school year or until their rental becomes available in mid-fall.

We also know that MDI is not the only place experiencing these dire housing issues. A recent New York Times story, headlined “Whatever Happened to the Starter Home?,” identified communities across the country with similar issues. It included this: “The starter home has always done a lot of work. It builds equity, creates stability, gives shelter from landlords and inflation. It has been an incubator of small businesses and community institutions like day care centers.”

What we are working to create may be starter homes or forever homes, but the outcomes of equity, stability, shelter, and incubation still apply.

Market forces will not fix our housing problem, which is reaching a crisis level. It needs an intervention and a commitment to move forward with plans that will relieve the stress for the long haul while maintaining the character of the town we all love.

Kathy Miller is executive director of Mount Desert 365, a nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to promoting long-term economic vitality of the town of Mount Desert, through expansion of year-round residential communities and economic revitalization of commercial districts.