2017-10-13 / Front Page

Housing talks are in session

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — A year after making its first foray into getting a grip in the affordable housing crisis facing many Maine communities, Kennebunkport has begun a new phase of the process, promising some preliminary answers by year’s end.

In late September 2016, town officials invited the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast (WHC) — a nonprofit based in Dover, New Hampshire — to conduct a public workshop on local housing needs. WHC brought in more than 20 designers, planners, architects, engineers, real estate agents, developers, bankers and construction estimators, along with interested local residents to study the issue.

Together, the group toured two local sites, including one adjacent to Kennebunkport Consolidated School (KCS), and brainstormed ways to create homes in town the average local worker could afford to buy.

The project was staged at no cost to the town, with the Nonantum Resort hosting the “charrette” sessions, and Kennebunk Savings Bank picking up most of the coalition’s costs.

The town asked WHC to come in because, as Town Manager Laurie Smith said at the time, “Being able to attract part of the workforce, and families, to our community has become an issue.” In other words, by and large, the people who work in Kennebunkport, can’t afford to live in Kennebunkport.

This past March, WHC delivered a report on its public workshop to selectmen. The two projects it considered were met with “skepticism” by many who attended the sessions, the WHC report concluded, saying, “there seemed to be persistent and perhaps widespread opposition to workforce housing” particularly for the lot abutting Consolidated School.

Some of the residents who attended the meeting questioned if the town was planning to develop the site. When told it was only being considered in a theoretical sense to help understand what might be done in town to help provide more affordable homes, some still said the entire WHC project was “putting the cart before the horse,” by eyeballing specific properties.

Still, the issue seemed moot. Two WHC teams, one focused on engineering and design standards, and the other on finance and project feasibility, determined that under current zoning restrictions in town, building 16 duplex units on the 8.1-acre site near the school would result in condo purchase costs of $529,500, each. Try as it might, the brainstorming teams could do no better with an 18.7-acre rural site off of Old Cape Road, determining that 32 units there would enter the market at $540,000 each.

Only if the town were to create a so-called “density bonus” zoning amendment, allowing for 80 units at 1,500-square-feet, each, could the price be brought down to the $267,375 target — thought to be within the range of the median income in town — the WHC groups concluded.

However, even with the density bonus allowing for 56 units, the price for each unit on the larger rural site was estimated to come in no lower than $370,000, owing to the need to build well and septic systems for each building, as well as costs to bring in utilities and the longer roads required to access the property.

Only by increasing the number of allowed units there to 94, or by subsidizing the project with federal tax credits could costs be lowered to meet the affordability target of less than $275,000 per unit, the group concluded.

Upon receipt of the WHC report, selectmen agreed to set aside Monday in this year’s capital outlay budget to fund a more in-depth analysis. Following approval of the year’s municipal budget at town meeting, selectmen Selectmen voted unanimously Aug. 10 to award a contract for that study to Camoine Associates of Saratoga Springs, New York, for $22,040.

On Thursday, representatives from Camoine, including senior vice president Jim Damicis of Scarborough and project manager Tom Dworetsky of Boston, made their first presentation before the town’s growth planning committee.

“Kennebunkport is slowly but surely becoming a victim of its own popularity and location,” wrote Town Planner Werner Gilliam is his invitation to residents for the kick-off meeting.

“Due to its desirability, real estate values continue to rise, making properties for Kennebunkport’s workforce more and more unaffordable,” Werner wrote. “It is estimated that two-thirds of year-round residents are unable to afford the median home price. The year-round population continues to decrease while our seasonal housing stock continues to increase. The vast majority of the workforce in Kennebunkport does not reside here. This issue affects the community’s character and its vibrancy, while our population becomes less and less diverse.”

“There’s no one thing we’re looking at at the start. It’s all on the table,” Damicis told the dozen residents who turned out for his presentation. “There’s no agenda for following any particular kind of strategy. We are not going to do that as a group until we understand what the issues are.”

The purpose of Camoine’s work, Damicis said, would be “to understand current issues and divine future trends in demands for different housing types” in Kennebunkport. The kick-off session, he noted, was to present “preliminary findings” based on available census and statistical data.

“After tonight we are going to go deeper into data analysis,” Damicis said. “We are going to conduct some interviews, primarily with people in the real estate business. We also will be doing a survey of businesses to understand what their workforce and housing needs are. We also will be talking to the school department about school capacity and enrollment trends and to police and fire as to what they are seeing on the ground in terms of population trends.”

Once that work is done, a second public meeting will be scheduled to go over those results and present “a framework of goals and objectives.”

“That will be an understanding of what the data tells us, what the opportunities and constraints are, and what, at that point, some of the draft recommendations might be, just to float them and get some more input,” Damicis said. “We will then take that input, working with the committee, and issue all of that into a final report.”

That final presentation, is expected to be delivered “by the end of the year,” although “there is no hard date yet,” Damicis said.

Town planner Werner Gilliams said that final report will likely be unveiled at a joint meeting of the Growth Planning Committee and the Board of Selectmen sometime in December.

Among the data presented by Camoine at the Oct. 5 session were stats on town demographics, its housing stock, “commutation” — meaning where people live vs. where they work — and the local labor force.

Demographic overview

Kennebunkport currently has an estimated population of 3,657, up 183 (or, 5 percent) since the last full U.S. census in 2010.

That is on par with growth in York County, at 5 percent, and ahead of Maine as a whole, at 3 percent, although it is slightly below the 6 percent average for the entire United States.

“This is sort of the good news,” Damicis said, noting that growth or decline that comes too fast presents the real challenges for a community. “However,” he said, “The trend is probably not going to change unless you make some changes in policy.”

There are 1,672 households in Kennebunkport, meaning an average of. 2.2 people per home. That is below York County (2.4), Maine (2.3), and the U.S. (2.6).

But more tellingly, the median age for Kennebunkport residents is 54.6. That is far above the median for the county (45), state (44) and country (38).

“This is no surprise,” Damicis said. “Maine is among the Top 3 oldest states. You have an older population within an older than average country and older than average state. This is not a judgment that this is a bad thing, we’re just presenting the facts.”

But as important as the median is the breakdown, Damicis said, given that 29.3 percent of Kennebunkport residents are age 65 or older — that compares to 19.1 percent for York County, 19.4 percent for Maine, and 15.6 percent across the U.S. — while just 13.7 percent are school aged, between 5 and 18. That is below York County (15.7 percent), Maine (15.3 percent), and the U.S. (17.6 percent).

“So, yes, you have kids in schools, but you don’t have anywhere near as much as Maine as a whole and other surrounding communities,” Damicis said.

But if Port residents are older, they are also, on average, wealthier. The median household income in Kennebunkport is $71,824, Damicis said, comparing that to $60,612 for all of York County, $51,709 for Maine, and $56,124 for the U.S. as a whole.

Even so, 4 percent of Kennebunkport households are below the federal poverty line, Damicis said, with fully 20 percent of homes bringing in less than $35,000 per year.

“A lot of times the median income is important in terms of a macro understanding, but it’s also important to understand some of the distinct stories,” Damicis said.

Housing stock

According to Camoine, the current median home price in Kennebunkport is $473,718 — equating to a monthly mortgage of about $2,264. According to Camoine’s calculation of how much a family should spend on housing costs, a household needs an annual income of $90,560 to afford the median local house.

Compare that to the York County median of $251,150 and a monthly mortgage of $1,200, for which an annual income of $48,000 is required.

“So, if you are working in Kennebunkport, you are going to need to find housing somewhere else, essentially,” Damicis said.

On the surface, local rents seem more reasonable, at a median of $871 per month, requiring an annual income of $34,840 to support. That’s not too far off from the York County median of $792, which would require an income of $31,680.

However, Damicis pointed out that there is a great deal of disparity in 212 rental units, which represent just 19.3 percent of all homes in town. Of those, the majority (84 — or 34.7 percent) are in the $750-$999 per month range, but 25 units (10.3 percent of the total) rent for more than $2,000 per month. Across all of Maine, only 1.1 percent of rental units go for that much. Meanwhile, 22 (9.1 percent) of Kennebunkport rentals go for less than $500, a figure that represents 24.4 percent of all Maine rents.

“It’s not a natural curve here,” Damicis said. “There are some at the very, very high end, and some at the low end, but not many units overall. But supply is an issue, too. It may be affordable, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find those affordables.”

That said, most of the dozen people who attended the Oct. 5 session challenged Camoine’s estimate of the number of rental units in town, saying it was too low.

Still, they agreed with the assessment that most buildings in Kennebunkport (84 percent, according to Camoine) are single-family homes, with the median home built in 1971. Still, the town has a “comparatively high number” of homes built before 1950, Damicis said.

But one other bit of good news is that the 19 percent growth in the number of rental units in Kennebunkport in since 2010, from 271 to 322. That compares to a 3 percent increase in owner-occupied homes over the same time period, from 1,307 to 1,350. However, the total growth in housing units over the past seven years (160, or 6 percent), means many of those rental units are coming in the form of subdivided homes, rather than new apartment or condo units.

Commutation

According to Camoine, 80 percent of Kennebunkport workers commute from homes outside of town, mostly Kennebunk, Biddeford, Sanford and Portland, to work locally. But the traffic goes both ways as 86 percent of town residents work in other communities, largely Biddeford and Portland, although some of that number includes local resident who work for out-of-state firms.

“There is a mismatch between jobs and housing,” Damicis said

Employment and labor force

Of the 3,657 people who call Kennebunkport their primary home, Camoine claims, 168 both live and work in town, 683 (80 percent) come from other places to work locally, while 1,032 (86 percent) leave town to work elsewhere.

“There’s sort of bedroom community thing going on, but there’s a greater dynamic than that,” Damicis said.

Although Camoine used county-wide data for a break-down of jobs, Damicis pointed to the top five job types and their median salaries to paint a picture for Kennebunkport. Across York County, government workers have the highest median income, at $77,498, with job sector growth over the past five years of 5 percent. But the next three largest employment sectors — healthcare and social assistance, retail trade, and hotel and food service — all fall below $50,000 per year — at $49,827, $31,773, and $25,602, respectively.

“Remember that minimum income to afford a home here, these are numbers that are well below that,” Damicis said. “Generally what you have here is industries that you are good at, meaning where you have concentrations of jobs, that are lower wage jobs. What this is telling you is you have these kinds of demands, but you don’t have the housing to support that.”

But not everyone was certain that rushing to build more housing units in town, affordable or otherwise, is the right path. Jill O’Connor, who acknowledged she is one of the town’s super-commuters, with a job in Boston, questioned the traffic, pollution and infrastructure impact more homes would bring.

“I think it’s like a chicken and egg,” she said. “We want more people to live here, but we are a tourist town. Do we actually need more housing? This data is important, but it really raises a bigger question — who do we want to be, and why do we need more housing? What is the benefit of more people? I want to live here and die here. I love this town. But maybe I’m not seeing it. Why are are we going down this path?”

“That’s a very good question,” Damicis said. “We are going to help you with the data. But we have no preconceived notions that you should do something different. We will just tell you want the data says, then we’ll have a conversation about who you want to be, and then we’ll recommend some strategies to get there.”

Another woman in the audience, who did not provide her name, questioned why the town has not already acted on its comprehensive plan, which calls on assessing fees to developers who do not set aside a certain number of subdivision homes or condo units at affordable rates.

“That’s not something that has been enacted into the subdivision regs and partly that is because there’s a need to do this kind of analysis in order to understand what the implications of that are,” Gilliam said. “We don’t want to just implement knee-jerk requirements that don’t actually address what the needs are.”

The woman then replied that the comprehensive plan was adopted in 2012, and gave a two-year timeframe for implementation of its affordable housing recommendations.

“That’s hardly knee-jerk, she said.

“We can go through this [comprehensive plan] book and find numerous timelines for implementation,” Gilliam said. “I would say Kennebunkport does better than most in terms of implementing things in their comp plan.”

But the final word went to growth committee member James Fitzgerald Jr., acting as chairman of the meeting, who pointed out that although Kennebunkport is undoubtedly a tourist town, most of its businesses do not thrive on tourists alone.

“One of the biggest concerns I have is that as we continue to increase our seasonal home ownership, it really impacts our ability to have vibrant businesses here in our local area,” he said. “A lot of them tend to have to shut down because there’s just not enough people here to shop in their shops. So, they’re dying out. And if that gets worse and worse, I don’t know what it’s going to do to the town. So, unless we have some way of having new families come in, that’s a scary thing to me.”

The question then becomes, as it was from the onset, how to attract people to live where housing costs are so high?

“You’re not alone in this. A lot of communities are really struggling with this,” Damicis said. “There are no easy answers.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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