For those who live on Mount Desert Island, a major New England tourist destination, the close of a summer season elicits a bittersweet reflection on the calendar. From Memorial Day until Labor Day, the Mount Desert workforce has kept a breakneck pace, guiding tour groups, bussing tables, and greeting guests. The gateway towns to Acadia National Park have welcomed another million visitors for the season, and for four months they have logged long hours, making the summer economy hum. But as the fall air chills around some of the most visited towns in the region, it also beckons the island residents back into their beloved communities as active, engaged neighbors. Visitors depart, making spaces for locals to recreate in their backyard again, while neighbors catch up in the aisles of the once frenetic grocery store. The libraries warm with tuned-up furnaces and evening gatherings to hear from a local author. Schools welcome back their educators and students. Community organizations gear up for another slate of 5Ks and live entertainment, making the snowy months seem more like a winter-long neighborhood party than just another chilly push until May.
These year-round islanders are the emergency responders, nurses, scientific researchers, and caretakers who keep a steady working pace twelve months a year. They work for the Park Service, school administration, and hospital. They keep a few restaurants open despite only breaking even during mud season. Sadly, they are also finding their ability to live near their workplace and beloved communities more challenging every year.
That’s because opportunities for affordable home ownership and year-round rental housing are as scarce as a downtown parking spot on 4th of July weekend. The median price for a family residence on Mount Desert Island (excluding the million-dollar estates on the market) is just under $400,000. And the reliability of vacation rental income is too seductive for investors to pass up, making property inventory sparse and sale prices high. For the year-round workforce and their families, living on the island is often impossible, resulting in record low enrollment in the local elementary schools and shuttered businesses in the winter.
Alison Beane is the executive director of Island Housing Trust (IHT), an organization dedicated to preserving the community landscape of Mount Desert Island. “We understand how affordable housing is crucial to community preservation and a thriving economy,” says Beane. “And we are keenly aware that the lack of year-round housing on this island is not unique to Maine or other destination towns across the county. Martha’s Vineyard and Jackson, Wyoming, for example, face similar challenges. We are committed to sharing goals and strategies with these other towns and working closely with local leadership to generate as many homeownership opportunities for workforce members and their families as we possibly can.”
“Without assistance from IHT, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to live on the island, which was so important to us,” says Jenny Rogers, an administrative assistant at Mount Desert Island High School. “We wanted to be a part of the island community and live as close as possible to our workplaces and these wonderful towns.”
Similarly, Jenny’s husband, Mike, generously credits IHT with much of his good fortune as a small business owner. Rogers co-owns LARK Studio, a Bar Harbor–based landscape architecture firm serving the needs of the island and the New England region. “IHT allowed me to live on the island,” says Rogers. “It enabled me to stay, start a business, and now give back to the organization that allowed me to do all those things.” Mike and LARK Studio have helped sponsor IHT events and supported various projects with design work.
The Rogers family lives in IHT’s Ripples Hill Community in Somesville, a postcard-inspiring village near the center of the island. This small subdivision is made up of nine energy-efficient homes that the organization designed and sold to qualified buyers who agreed to detailed affordability covenants. The Rogers own their home, as do the eight other families in this close-knit community that prides itself on an open-door policy for each other’s kids and employing group text messages to borrow a recipe ingredient.
Lucy and Ethan Rogers are among the nine kids from Ripples Hill who attend the nearby elementary school, which has seen steady decline in enrollment in the last several decades. Nearly 240 students attended the K-8 school in the late 1990s; last fall’s enrollment boasted a small uptick from the past few years to 181 kids. A record low of five kindergarteners started school this fall. Mount Desert Island schools like this one aren’t alone, as many schools across Maine show similar enrollment trends and hints at consolidation. The region’s status as a prized summer destination, however, adds to the complexity of the school district’s dilemma.
Linda Higgins, a lifelong resident of the island, is a real estate agent and IHT board member. She describes a common trend in communities where she grew up and raised her family. “It used to be that you knew everyone in the neighborhood,” she says. “But now, with summer residents and rental properties, we’re losing the families. We just don’t see as many lights on in the wintertime.”
Since 2008, Island Housing Trust has risen to meet these challenges by completing 35 homeownership projects for 108 adults and children on Mount Desert Island. These include, in addition to Ripples Hill, another development of four homes in Bar Harbor, and the Homeownership Assistance Program (HOAP), in which IHT provides financial assistance to enable qualified applicants to purchase year-round houses all over the island. IHT also oversaw the acquisition of two other properties, which were then placed under affordability covenants: one donated and one made available through the conservation organization Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Among the 35 homeownership projects completed by IHT in the past decade are five successful resales of residential properties that carried IHT’s affordability covenants, which enabled IHT to resell these homes at below-market rates to qualified working families and individuals.
This fall Ethan Rogers joins his sister and neighborhood pals at the Ripples Hill bus stop as a proud kindergartener, one of the five comprising his whole incoming class. His parents resume the reliable pace of winter, with work, school, and community events. Like many locals, they share a secret delight in the change of season.
“The truth is that the winters can be hard, but they are also a time of connecting with our friends and neighbors,” says Jenny. “And most importantly to us, our neighborhood has turned out to be everything we were looking for in a community, allowing us to appreciate all the seasons here and give back to IHT and surrounding towns. We are truly grateful.”
On Mount Desert Island, year-round and seasonal residents are working with Island Housing Trust to protect one of their most valued assets—a vibrant community that keeps the lights on and shares the best of what it has to offer, from education to emergency services to a cup of sugar, all year round.
This piece was written by board member and IHT homeowner Kendra Rand. Kendra is an instructor in communications at the University of Maine and her husband works with Acadia National Park.