Housing shortage leaves some Washington County residents scrambling

Although the pandemic boosted the population of rural Down East Maine, the sudden influx of new residents spiraled Washington County’s already dire housing shortage, consuming much of the available housing stock.

Worse, the housing shortage in Maine’s second-poorest borough — where the poverty rate is about 20 percent and the median household income is less than $45,000 — puts the neediest residents at a disadvantage when looking for housing.

Standing next to an aging, unwinterized camper – their home, at least until spring – Arthur Worster and his partner Bryttani Ball said they never expected to be homeless. Worster has lived in his grandparents’ home in East Machias for 20 years, the last few years with Ball and their two teenagers. After the death of Worster’s grandfather, the estate passed down through the generations was transferred to another relative who decided to sell it while the real estate market was hot. Although the home was only valued at $75,044, it is surrounded by homes that are selling for up to $430,000.

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

“We’re losing everything,” Ball said while watching Worster and her sons gather salvaged lumber from a demolished garage to begin building a home on Worster’s vacant neighboring lot. “And it’s not just us. We found that there are about 20 other people here in East Machias who feel the same way.”

Officials across the county report their housing stock is near zero. Properties in every price range have been swept up in the spending spree, either by new, more affluent year-round residents fleeing crowded cities to enjoy the idyllic countryside to the east, or by locals eager to make money as prices soar jumped. Affordable homes within reach of middle- and low-income buyers are particularly hard to find, according to real estate agents.

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

The lack of affordable housing has hampered an innovative program to provide housing for migrants. Based in Milbridge, Mano en Mano is a non-profit organization that provides services to seasonal migrants from Haiti and Central and South America who harvest wild blueberries in the summer and weave wreaths in the winter. The program, called Welcome Home Down East, would allow migrants who have been offered year-round work to purchase a home through a five-year lease signed by Mano en Mano. The plan to buy seven decent starter homes launched at the start of the pandemic has been stalled, according to the group’s housing director, Elan Gabel-Richards.

“You used to be able to buy a decent house for under $120,000, which wasn’t perfect, you know, but something you could move into and get a loan to buy pretty easily,” said Gabel-Richards. “Now a $90,000 home that’s for sale needs a full gut and renovation.”

To compound the problem for buyers and renters alike, many of the better homes bought during the pandemic have been converted – sometimes at double appraisal – into holiday and short-term rentals. A search on Apartments.com turned up just five rentals across the county; Three of them were tiny efficiency, or one-bedroom, apartments that cost between $800 and $1,600 a month and were advertised as short-term rentals for traveling nurses and professionals. Machia’s Town Manager Bill Kitchen is not surprised.

“Across the board there are no cheap apartments, there are no expensive apartments. There are no apartments in the middle of the street right now,” Kitchen said. “We have doctors from the hospital looking, one commuting by plane… The new dean of the[University of Maine at Machias]is trying desperately to find a house.”

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

“Washington County as a whole needs to really look hard and put our heads together to find some sort of solution,” Mercier said. “It’s great if you can get people here, but it won’t work as well if they don’t have a home.”

Eastport City manager Kate Devonshire, a Massachusetts native who moved down east two years ago, wasn’t immune either. With no rental accommodation in the popular artists’ enclave and tourist destination, a temporary stay at her parents’ retirement home in downtown Eastport has 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 should be out there saving the town, you know?”

For those on low incomes, at risk, or living on the edge, the housing crisis is no hoax and much more than an inconvenience. In many cases, living with relatives is not possible for a variety of reasons: a lack of family ties locally, too little space or unhealthy living conditions, to name just a few. With few resources, many are forced to make it on their own.

If they meet eligibility requirements, low-income residents can apply for a Maine Housing Authority Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, which can pay up to 70 percent of the monthly rent. Unfortunately, if that sounds too good to be true, it’s partly because of the housing boom, but also because the county’s low-income housing development has stalled.

According to the Maine Housing Authority’s most recent report, there are only 42 affordable housing complexes statewide with a total of 56 units available, but most units are only open to people with disabilities or over the age of 62. There were only seven units open average population. So far, not much has been done to alleviate the shortage.

Although MaineHousing has supported 326 housing projects statewide over the past 16 years, only four new housing projects have been added in Washington County, which are restricted. Three are supportive living facilities intended for community, nonprofit groups, or tribal purposes; Only one is a rental complex and is located on the Passamaquoddy Reservation, which is available exclusively to tribal people.

In addition to the long waiting list for the Section 8 program, homes must meet state quality standards and rent caps for apartments — 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 skyrocketed, according to Charley Martin-Berry, executive director of the Community Caring Collaborative, a community service support network.

“It’s like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket,” said Martin-Berry. “Even if you move up the list and have a coupon in hand, it’s hard to get a spot.”

Landlords run businesses and make profitable decisions, but the consequences for some of the most vulnerable populations can be catastrophic – homelessness or worse. Because Washington County doesn’t have tent cities or general-use shelters, Martin-Berry said the county’s homeless are “invisible,” but they’re couch surfing or living in abandoned buildings and sheds in the worst of circumstances.

“These rental barracks are quickly becoming apartments for people,” said Martin-Berry. “And it says right on them, this is not a house, this is not for living in, but people are absolutely sheltering in it.”


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

“Landlords just aren’t really open to coupons[from victims of domestic violence]and they have this monopoly right now where they can choose who they rent,” Dean said.

For Washington County residents whose livelihoods cannot be relocated, such as those who make their livings in the waters of Down East, the housing struggle is intensifying. Before an estimated 80 new residents moved in, some fishermen in the small coastal town of Jonesport had set out in search of housing in Washington County, forcing them to commute long distances to work each day.

That’s an added hardship for lobster fishermen who start their days well before sunrise. According to Jonesport Mayor William Milliken, it’s also a hardship for the city because fishermen take their families with them when they move.

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

Faced with few, if any, viable housing alternatives, people across the county sometimes throw up their hands and move completely. Experts say the exodus of residents along 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 immigration and emigration since COVID has become a priority for county officials worried about the future of the Down East.

Based in Machias, the Sunrise Economic Council works across many sectors to create jobs and foster economic growth across the county. Though it can be difficult to quantify, it has some metrics to track churn, according to its CEO, Charles Rudelitch. Rudelitch said paying attention to these numbers, along with other economic indicators, will help community leaders stave off the potential pitfalls of gentrification.

“This is my hometown. I have a sense of how much hardship the economic challenges have created in Washington County,” Rudelitch said. “More prosperity, I think, would be a wonderful thing for the area. But gentrification that’s solely based on “Based on investment income from the road doesn’t create the same opportunities here. I think that could be very problematic. It could increase the cost of living without providing the means to actually make more money for the people who live here.”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To receive regular reports from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.

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