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As housing shortage grips Brunswick, town faces new challenges to maintain affordability

October 20, 2023

Amira Oguntoyinbo
A BUILDING OF MANY STORIES: New Brunswick Landing apartments welcome asylum seekers to the town along with the stories they carry.

While to students Bowdoin may feel like the epicenter of life in Brunswick, the town’s legacy was framed by the last housing boom, created in response to the Naval Air Station built after World War II. With the base’s closure in 2011, residents once feared that the town would experience housing overflow, but the opposite became true.

Since January 2019, the median home price in Brunswick has nearly doubled from $262,500 to $510,000 as of August 2023. Within Cumberland county at large, the median home price currently sits at $575,000, which is a 16% increase from the previous year. Higher home prices have changed and will continue to change the demographic of Brunswick in this new chapter of the town’s identity.

This phenomenon is not unique to the town, though. Brunswick housing trends reflect larger state and national patterns in the housing market. After the 2008 financial crisis, building at the demand needed for a growing homeowner population was not economically feasible. Similarly, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of building materials skyrocketed due to supply chain issues, leaving residual impacts on the current housing market. With the compounding issue of the current labor shortage, the price of building exacerbates this shortage of newly constructed affordable homes needed to fill market demands.

The current state of the national housing shortage is also in part due to generational impacts. As millennials age into the housing market with relatively low capital in their collective generation, the need for affordable first homes is critical but not accounted for in the current supply. A recent report from MaineHousing—the state’s housing authority—estimates that Maine needs another 80,000 single family residences by 2030 to meet its demand. According to Brunswick Town Assessor Taylor Burn, Brunswick added 831 new units since 2019, but this new housing stock barely scratches the surface of current housing needs.

Brunswick housing crisis causes include pandemic-related market changes attributed to out-of-state buyers

According Sarah Singer, a real estate agent of Portside Real Estate Group, the external pressure from out-of-state buyers selling property or ending rental leases in more expensive markets to experience a relatively cheaper cost of living in Maine compared to major cities creates top-down pressure on the housing market.

“When the pandemic hit, and people were allowed to reconfigure their professional lives into remote work, a whole bunch of people who had thought they might want to live in Maine, but for whom that was never possible, suddenly started moving here,” Singer said.

Singer believes that for many working in major cities along the east coast like New York City and Boston, the pandemic recontextualized their values and the quality of life they sought following a cultural shift towards remote work. Southern Maine became a reflection of that ideal life that could now be attainable.

“You were living in suburban Boston, in a small house commuting into the city every day or commuting to some office building. Your company goes remote, and then they tell you you’re gonna be remote forever, and you think, ‘We could buy a really nice house in Maine and live there, and I could come to meetings periodically in Boston, but basically live that fantasy life in Maine,’” Singer said.

While the pandemic propagated a sudden boom in migration to Maine, climate change is a persistent, looming threat to the current way of life in many states, bringing new residents to the area in search of a more controlled climate.

“We’re having milder winters and hotter summers, which people that are living down south are more used to. People may have stayed away from northern New England because of these crazy, 12-feet-of-snow winters, but now we’re not getting those anymore,” District 3 Town Council Representative Abby King said.

Singer anecdotally noted that she has started to notice more people moving to Brunswick in response to record-high heat and natural disasters in other parts of the country.

“We had a couple who came from Altadena, just outside Pasadena and Los Angeles, who told us that they couldn’t do another fire season,” Singer said. “We also have a couple currently relocating to this area from the South, and they’ve told us that they lived in their house for 20 years, and they used to [go] outside in the summer, but now it’s too hot.”

Higher housing prices may eventually go down in other regions of the country as the impacts of the Covid market subside, but for Brunswick, this may not be the case.

In the past, Brunswick suffered from brain drain—when younger-educated residents leave to pursue opportunities out of the region—and housed an older population like many neighboring towns, but new residents have shifted that dynamic. According to Brunswick’s Economic Development Director Sally Costello, younger couples are moving to the town to take advantage of recent economic development and its highly-ranked school system.

“There’s a lot of people who really believe that this is a bubble that will burst, and I just don’t think it will because of climate change,” King said.

According to King, Maine is a dream housing market for those making what she calls “city” salaries. Singer asserted that for many in-state residents, they lack the financial capital to outbid out-of-state buyers willing to pay cash offers above asking-price. As a result, qualified homeowners who cannot find houses suitable for their income level will look at the next bracket, creating a depressive mechanism within the market. While a single-family home in Cumberland County would typically sit on the market for about 40 days in January 2019, the average days on market in 2022 was just 6 days at 102% of asking price according to Portside Real Estate Company.

“You might have some hyper-qualified Bowdoin professor couple who came to buy, can’t find anything they want to buy, and now they want to rent, but they have a lot of money, income and credit, and so they’re starting to push down on the market. Because if the thing that they want is out of reach, they step down and buy what they can overafford,” Singer said.

All of a sudden, good first-time houses for people coming into the market were taken by overqualified candidates, leaving individuals with the least financial capital the most vulnerable to housing shortages. The aftermath of this effect is the need for affordable housing development, particularly at median income levels.

A shortage of affordable workforce housing

Developers are incentivized to build high-income housing in an effort to cater to the influx of new residents from higher-priced markets, King explained. In addition, housing for low-income families often can get subsidized by the state or federal government, making it economically feasible for developers to build affordable housing at that level. However, workforce housing—defined by the town as housing for people that make between 80 to 120 percent of the median town income—does not get subsidized by the government and is not as financially reasonable for developers to build compared to high-income housing. Thus, developers are the least inclined to start projects at an income level that encompasses the majority of residents.

“We’re hearing stories about people that have good jobs at Bath Iron Works and are living in their car because they literally can’t find housing,” King said. “Our bigger employers like Mid Coast Hospital and Bath Iron Works are losing out on great candidates because people are interested in positions and looking to accept but can’t find a house.”

In 2021, a group of citizens and town council members began meeting about affordable housing, prompting Abby King and other counselors to create an affordable housing committee to mitigate Brunswick’s current crisis.

“We have just been looking at housing across the board because we really have a need at all income levels from the unhoused through people that can afford to pay market rate. We just don’t have the stock here in Brunswick,” King said. “We need many approaches because there’s not one approach that’s going to create housing for people at all income levels … and that’s what we’ve been working on.”

In June 2023, the Town Council passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance, which now requires any housing development over 15 units to include 15 percent of that at 80 percent area median income. The council also created the Affordable Housing Support Fund that will allow developers to apply for subsidies to fill the financial gap impeding builders from taking on workforce housing projects. A grant from MaineHousing, state and fiscal local recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and tax revenue from the economic development district brought the fund up to $1 million.

Recent pushes by the council to regulate and monitor out-of-state purchases of units for Airbnb and VRBO listings that could house local families through commercial taxes may also help reclaim some preexisting property.

“That’s how we start to build this inventory of affordable units that we can make sure we still have because we brought the public funding, and we can say it has to remain that way,” Costello said. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of choices. We need more single family homes. We need more duplexes; We need condos and townhomes. What we’ve got are a lot of single family homes that are aging and a lot of high-end apartment buildings.”

The town council has already been approached by developers requesting funds to support workforce housing plans. Singer is concerned that these requests may not be enough to pull the town out of its housing crisis, however.

“If two in thirty units of housing have to be affordable in a town this size … you’re not really solving a housing crisis,” Singer said.  “We’re overdue for another development.… [We need to] create some new neighborhoods of affordability because, unless we can actually inject some serious housing into the market, I think these smaller measures are a drop in the bucket.”

While dealing with a housing crisis for residents, Brunswick is also welcoming several hundred asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which requires the town to create services and housing accommodations for a new and vulnerable population. Brunswick Landing will be a designated affordable housing development site, providing refuge to the influx of asylum seekers.

“We were putting these services in place to help asylees and immigrants because we want to be welcoming, and we know that ultimately it’s going to be great for us because we’re going to be more diverse, which is excellent. We’re going to skew younger, which is excellent. We’re going to feed our workforce, which is excellent,” Costello said.

With 70 percent of people living in Brunswick working outside of the town, Brunswick faces an out-commuter problem in which many people who work in the town cannot afford to live here. Furthermore, rising housing prices in Portland have fostered a newfound commuter-suburb culture between Portland and Brunswick.

“Public school teachers, firefighters, police officers, your municipal employees—they’re just never gonna make the wages to compete with a house for $700,000,” Singer said. “So if you want people in your community who teach in public schools or work in the fire department, which I definitely do, you have to create some housing opportunities.”

The housing market’s impact on Bowdoin

Bowdoin is not immune to this problem. Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Matt Orlando explained how many faculty relocate Brunswick upon hiring, which may pose additional challenges under the current housing market.

“We sent out a survey for anyone who had been hired at Bowdoin within the last three years to understand their housing situation. We got about 300 responses, and effectively 100% of the faculty that were hired here came from out of region.” Orlando said. “I would say for administrative staff, it’s more like 50%. We recruit locally and nationally, depending on the job.”

“We try to do the best we can to offer faculty rental housing from our own stock when they are first hired, and they typically get a three year agreement to live in faculty renting around campus,” Orlando said. “Some folks that were in year one in 2020 or 2021 are now running into the expiration, and they’re now entering this market that is really expensive, and also where interest rates are going up.”

Orlando fears that local affordability could drive recent hires away from Brunswick and towards cheaper neighborhoods and counties outside of Bowdoin’s local sphere.

“We’ve never been a 9–5 campus, so part of the residential experience is that faculty live in the area; they raise their families in the area; you see them on campus after hours; you see them in the dining halls, and if they have a 45-minute commute home because that’s where they can find affordable housing, it changes what has been the culture here in ways that aren’t intended,” Orlando said.

Sustainability Outreach and Program Manager Christina Honeycutt and Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Jennifer Honeycutt hoped to find a home for their family in Brunswick after renting property in Harpswell for three years while working for the College.

“We looked for a couple of years in Brunswick,” Jennifer Honeycutt said. “Unfortunately, we were outbid at almost every turn for every offer that we made with people with cash offers, and so we weren’t able to afford a home that we wanted in town and actually ended up looking outside of Brunswick in order to find something that was within our price range.”


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