2017-09-07 / News

Town approves housing needs analysis

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNKPORT — With roughly two- thirds of year-round households in Kennebunkport unable to afford the median home price in town, selectmen have authorized the creation of a “housing needs analysis” designed to “ensure the continued livability” of the town for locals.

Selectmen voted unanimously at their Aug. 10 meeting to award a contract for the work to Camoine Associates of Saratoga Springs, New York, for $22,040.

Camoine’s Portland office came in mid-pack of three bidders for the project — below the $23,000 put forth by South Portland-based Gorrell-Palmer Consulting Engineers and the $20,000 low bid submitted by Reinholt Consulting of Phillips.

Asked why she recommended against the low bid, Town Manager Laurie Smith said the request for proposal (RFP) form submitted by Reinholt was “incomplete.”

“There also were errors in it and question marks and blanks, and we thought if that’s how their RFP was, imagine how our report might look,” Smith said.

The final report, due to selectmen in December, is expected to provide action steps to provide affordable housing over the next decade, primarily through zoning and land use policies, but also by recommending “proven methods and strategies successfully employed in other communities.”

The town’s 2012 comprehensive plan noted 1,214 (or 67.3 percent) of year-round Kennebunkport households could not then afford the median home price in town. While that compared favorably with the 70.2 percent of households on the outs across York County, the statewide income-to-median-home deficit was 59.4 percent.

“Since that time, housing prices have continued to increase,” noted the town’s RFP to vendors.

Almost one year ago, on Sept. 27 and 29, 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 tour two Kennebunkport sites, including one adjacent to Consolidated School, and brainstorm ways to create homes in town that the average person could afford.

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 coalition’s costs.

The town asked WHC to come in because, as 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 at businesses in Kennebunkport, can’t afford to live in Kennebunkport.

The 2000 U.S. Census pegged the median age of Kennebunkport residents at 46, with 25 percent 65 and older. The town had 2,559 housing units, but 36.8 percent were considered “vacant” due to occasional use as second homes, or for seasonal rentals. By the 2010 census, the median age had jumped to 52, with 34 percent 65 or older, and, while the housing stock had grown to 2,897 units, 45 percent were deemed “vacant” in the eyes of the feds.

“So, in that short 10-year period, we had seen what I would say was a dramatic change.” Smith said. “And I would tell you the preliminary data we have seen from 2015 shows that those numbers continue to increase. Our population continues to age. Our vacancy rate continues to increase. So, what does this mean about our community?”

According to WHC executive director Robin Comstock, it means homes in Kennebunkport are increasingly out of reach for working class residents.

According to Comstock, the median income of individuals living in Kennebunkport year-round was $74,167 in 2015. Accepting the conventional wisdom that a person should be able to put 30 percent of their income into housing costs, Comstock said, that person should be able to afford to buy a home priced at $275,000. However, the median home price in Kennebunkport in 2015 was $509,330, she said.

“That puts financial pressure on households, by requiring most of them to spend a higher percentage of their income on housing,” Comstock said at the 2016 workshop sessions.

More importantly, the data appears to show that as year-round residents leave Kennebunkport for cheaper homes and lower taxes elsewhere, new homeowners are not replacing them in equal numbers — at least not the type of residents most likely take jobs at local businesses and industries.

“That means we are seeing a lot of home sales to people who are purchasing the home to immediately do rentals, and we are seeing a change to local property as second homes, or third homes,” Smith said. “That means it is more difficult to find a year-round population, and that means it’s more difficult to find people to work in our community. It’s more difficult to find people to serve on our planning board. It’s more difficult to find people who can volunteer on our fire department. It’s more difficult to find teachers who can live nearby. It’s more difficult when we need to hire a plow truck driver to work with our public works guys, and we need him to be within a certain distance to respond during a storm.”

The RFP put it more bluntly, saying, “The trend toward seasonal rentals and seasonal residents is impacting the town’s ability to function on a year-round basis.”

Following its 2016 workshops, at which it considered two hypothetical housing projects, WHC delivered a report on its efforts to selectmen in March.

The two projects were met with skepticism by many who attended the workshops, with the WHC report concluding “there seemed to be persistent and perhaps widespread opposition to workforce housing” particularly at one potential 8.1-acre development site located next to Kennebunkport Consolidated School.

Some of the residents who attended the meeting questioned if the town was planning to actually 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 would result in condo purchase costs $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 target, the WHC groups concluded. With more homes in multi-unit buildings, construction cost could be brought down from $160 per square foot, to $100 at the Consolidated School site, lowered the presumed purchase price to $267,375 per unit — just within range of the median income in town.

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 for each one, 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, the group concluded, could costs be lowered to meet the affordability target of less than $275,000 per unit.

Upon receipt of the WHC report, selectmen agreed to set aside money in this year’s capital outlay budget to fund a more in-depth analysis.

“The value of this study is immense,” board chairman Patrick Briggs said at the time. “One of the difficulties we face is getting reliable information. You don’t want to have an uninformed decision process. Where we will end up is something that will be decided in the future, but this is something that we need to get the dialogue going.”

In addition to compiling data on existing housing stock, local land use rules, demographics, the area economy, and home demand — including increasing competition from home sharing websites like Airbnb, which reportedly has driven up residential home process as investment opportunities — Camoine is required to engage area residents.

That will include staging at least three public meetings with the town’s growth planning committee — one to gather information, one to present data and solicit public feedback, and one to present its report prior to submission to selectmen.

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