Ivy Vann, a New Hampshire-based certified planner hired by Harpswell as a consultant, moderates a workshop on affordable housing at Harpswell Community School on Tuesday, Aug. 22. Town officials were seeking input for an upcoming report on options for affordable housing in Harpswell. (J. Craig Anderson photo)

Dozens of Harpswell residents gathered Tuesday, Aug. 22, to discuss the town’s lack of affordable housing, share their concerns and offer possible solutions to the complex problem.

The workshop was hosted by the town’s Affordable Housing Working Group and held at Harpswell Community School. Ivy Vann, a New Hampshire-based certified planner hired by the town as a consultant, served as the event’s moderator.

“I want everyone to remember that this is a safe space and there are no wrong answers,” Vann told attendees at the outset of the two-hour discussion.

The working group has been tasked with developing a set of recommendations for how to diversify Harpswell’s housing stock, which is heavily weighted toward expensive homes on large lots.

The town’s median listing was priced at $782,450 in July, according to Realtor.com, out of roughly 20 homes for sale. According to online real estate marketplace Zillow, a family with Harpswell’s 2021 median household income of $81,500 could not comfortably afford a home priced at even half that amount.

The working group is considering a variety of ways to promote the creation of more modestly priced living spaces, but its members have emphasized the need for community input to help guide them.

About 50 residents attended the workshop. They were broken up into groups of five to eight and asked a series of questions meant to spark discussion and elicit their ideas and opinions.

Attendees were prompted to discuss their own living situation and how sustainable it is, as well as their thoughts on what it would take to attract new residents to the area, including more working-class residents, and what the town could do to help.

Most attendees said they were happy with their current living situation, but some expressed concerns about the town’s aging population and the declining number of younger residents and families with children.

“When you look around the room right now, you see a lot of gray hair, or no hair,” said Allan LeGrow, chair of both the town’s Planning Board and its Comprehensive Plan Task Force. “The reality is that we are a community of retirees.”

Attendees generally agreed that the town’s unique geography, limited groundwater resources, lack of public transportation and distance from many basic services make it difficult to come up with obvious solutions to the affordable housing problem.

LeGrow and Harpswell residents David and Anne Taft wondered if lower-income families would even benefit from living in a town that has no public transportation, grocery store, high school or doctor’s office.

“Would we be making life better or worse for them?” David Taft said.

Harpswell’s elected officials are trying to do their part to promote more diverse living spaces following a recent, ongoing period of intense gentrification. The Select Board recently hired Vann as a consultant to help it explore the issue of affordable housing.

In July, the town held a series of informal gatherings in which participants could stop by and engage with working group members without having to sit through time-consuming speeches or presentations.

The Aug. 22 workshop was the final opportunity for Vann to gather residents’ input before crafting a report on possible solutions. Vann said she planned to submit her report to the working group by early September.

“This is a problem that can be worked on,” she said.

Working group members have said it will be challenging to develop a realistic and workable road map for the development of more affordable housing in Harpswell.

Some have suggested promoting and incentivizing long-term rentals instead of vacation rentals, which could be done through fees, taxes, and/or rules and restrictions.

Another possibility would be the formation of a nonprofit housing trust — or a partnership with an existing one — that could apply for grants to develop smaller projects such as cluster housing, duplexes or small-lot homes. Those projects might require zoning changes or the easing of certain development restrictions and fees.

Cumberland County as a whole has seen home prices increase dramatically since just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset in March 2020, according to the Maine Association of Realtors. The countywide median sales price inflated from $317,250 in its March 2020 home sales report to $550,000 in its most recent report issued Aug. 22, an increase of more than 73%.

LeGrow said it might be necessary to partner with neighboring municipalities on affordable housing solutions to leverage their expertise and resources for the benefit of the entire region.

“I think we have to look at it in a regional way,” he said.

Have a comment or news tip? Please contact J. Craig Anderson via email.