Census shows growth in Wells, Ogunquit among fastest in Maine. What it means for housing. – Seacoastonline.com

The growth has at times brought growing pains to York County’s housing market.

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WELLS, Maine — Perhaps it should come as no surprise that “The Friendliest Town in Maine” and its younger sibling, the “Beautiful Place by the Sea,” are among the fastest-growing towns in the state, according to detailed 2020 Census data released last week.

The population in Wells grew 18% in the past decade, and the population in neighboring Ogunquit — which was part of Wells until it split off in 1980 — grew an astounding 76.8% since 2010, according to the 2020 Census.

Wells added 1,725 residents to clock in last year at a population of 11,314, and Ogunquit added 685 residents to land at 1,577 last year.

2020 Census: Maine more diverse but still whitest state in nation. York County growing.

The growth of those two towns contributed to the growth of York County, where 211,972 residents were counted in 2020, an increase of 14,841, or 7.5%, since 2010, according to the Census data.

York County ranked second among Maine’s 16 counties, just behind Cumberland County’s 7.6% growth rate.

All this growth has come, at times, with growing pains in York County’s housing market.

In a report released in July, the Southern Maine Planning & Development Commission said multiple cities and towns have cited housing affordability as their greatest challenge.

“Many municipalities have taken important steps to change local policy and regulations in hopes of encouraging more affordable housing options, but many complex factors still influence the housing market across the region,” the SMPDC report states. “This challenge is only exacerbated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing in-migration, development costs, and supply shortages or bottlenecks.”

These housing pressures are evident in the Census data, which track the total number of housing units in each area, how many of those units are occupied and how many are considered vacant.

Although the total number of housing units in York County grew by 6,425 between 2010 and 2020, the number of occupied housing units in York County grew by 7,915. That 9.8% increase in the number of occupied housing units was the highest among all 16 counties. York County’s vacancy rate decreased from 23.4% in 2010 to 20.7% in 2020.

Impacts on housing affordability

There are additional variables at play, but the Census data suggest York County’s housing market has either barely kept pace with demand over the past decade or has fallen just behind where it needs to be, according to MaineHousing spokesperson Cara Courchesne.

That being said, the bigger question is whether the housing that exists is a good match for the population, Courchesne said. Does the housing stock include options that are affordable, she said, meaning can households spend 30% or less of their income on their housing? Is the available housing the right size for what individuals and families in the area want or need? And is the available housing in the right location? 

“We know that anytime a population increases in an area where there is already a housing crunch (especially in an area that is barely keeping pace purely from a numbers perspective), housing challenges could increase,” Courchesne said.

For almost all of the past decade, the cost of housing in York County has remained unaffordable for most of the people who live here, whether they own or rent, according to MaineHousing homeownership and rental affordability indexes.

The median home price in York County rose 60% in the past decade, from $205,900 in 2010 to $330,000 in 2020, according to MaineHousing. In Wells, the median home price rose 77%, from $242,500 to $429,500. And in Ogunquit, the median home price rose 86% over the past decade, from $390,000 to $726,250. 

Some towns saw even bigger increases. The median home price in Kennebunk increased 88%, from $245,000 in 2010 to $461,300 in 2020. And in Kennebunkport, the median home price rose 138%, from $300,000 in 2010 to $715,000 in 2020, according to MaineHousing data — though it’s important to note housing prices were significantly lower in 2010 than they had been just a couple of years earlier, before the subprime mortgage crisis.

The cost to rent an apartment in York County has risen even faster than home prices, more than doubling in the past decade. The median cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment in York County climbed from $884 in 2010 to $1,704 in 2020, according to MaineHousing data. In Wells, the median cost to rent a two-bedroom apartment rose from $1,084 to $1,800, significantly outpacing wages.

The percentage of Wells households who cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment increased from 56.5% in 2010 to 74.1% in 2020. (Town-specific apartment data for Ogunquit was not included in the index.)

Data show fewer vacant homes

The number of occupied housing units in Wells and Ogunquit outpaced the total number of units in each town, but the difference was especially pronounced in Ogunquit, according to 2020 Census data. Wells added 809 total units and 899 occupied units in the past decade, while Ogunquit added 95 total units and 343 occupied units.

Ogunquit was the county’s least affordable municipality for homeownership in 2020, according to the SMPDC report.

The housing vacancy rates in Wells and Ogunquit were substantially higher than most of York County, according to Census data. In Wells, the vacancy rate fell from 51.9% in 2010 to 46.4% in 2020. In Ogunquit, the vacancy rate fell from 75.2% to 60.0%.

The U.S. Census Bureau considers a home to be vacant if no one is living there at the time of the census taker’s interview, unless the occupants are absent only temporarily, such as for a vacation. A home is deemed vacant if those who occupy it have a usual residence elsewhere. (The number of occupied housing units is the same as the number of households.)

The reference date for this census was April 1, 2020, which was just a couple of weeks after the pandemic began severely disrupting daily life in the United States and as officials urged people who own homes in Maine but live elsewhere to remain in their primary residences.

Understanding and regulating growth

Some community members have expressed hesitancy about the rate of growth in their local towns, even as local officials have offered reassurances.

When questioned by a member of the public during the Wells Board of Selectmen meeting on Aug. 3, Town Engineer/Planner Michael Livingston said the Wells Planning Board has approved an average of 61 new dwelling units per year within subdivisions in the past 12 years, and the code office has issued an average of 123 building permits for single-family homes each year — a pace he described as sustained, not frenzied.

“The town has had that continuous growth for many years,” Livingston said.

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In addition to the increase in year-round population, Town Manager Larissa Crockett said Wells has seen an increase in its seasonal population as well, with part-time residents tending to stick around town more months of the year than they used to. That is evidenced in local traffic patterns, she said.

Considering its easy access to Interstate 95, its awesome beaches and the hiking trails that crisscross large swaths of conservation land, it’s no wonder people have been moving to town, Crockett said in an interview Monday.

“Wells is a prime town to live in, to grow in, to invest in,” she said. “There should be no surprise to anyone that people have found Wells and want to be here.”

There are challenges, of course, associated with rapid population increases in any community, Crockett said. The impacts on traffic are among the most tangible for locals in Wells, she said, noting how busy Route 1 can get “any time the sun is shining.” 

As the town anticipates what the next decade may bring, Crockett said local officials will host a series of workshops and conversations about growth, beginning next month. The overall objective of these educational sessions is to make sure members of the Board of Selectmen fully understand the growth-related issues pertaining to their policy decisions and their communications to their constituents, she said. These sessions aim also to be informative for the general public, and messaging will be reinforced through the town’s email newsletter, social media posts and other channels. 

The sessions will begin with a discussion about the differences between cluster subdivisions and standard subdivisions, Crockett said. There will be a workshop related to the challenges and opportunities presented by growth caps, she said. And local leaders will discuss what options under state law the town has at its disposal to regulate or encourage growth in all of town or certain sections. 

“This is really going to be a year of conversation,” she said.

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In addition to the workshops and discussion, local leaders will also be ramping up conversations on an update to the town’s Comprehensive Plan, with draft language expected this spring, she added.

In coastal towns like Wells, there is a fundamental tension between a booming residential real estate market and housing affordability, which is why Wells needs to be thoughtful and deliberate in its zoning and other initiatives to encourage developers to build housing that working people — including teachers, health care personnel, public safety personnel, service workers and others — can afford, Crockett said. There are also seniors who want to retire in southern Maine but who may not be as wealthy as others moving to town, so senior housing needs to be part of the policy planning as well, she said.

To that end, Crockett said she will be working with other leaders through the Maine Municipal Association to explore regional approaches to housing affordability and state-level policy initiatives from lawmakers. 

Nearly every York County town grew

Although the towns of Wells and Ogunquit saw the fastest population growth, more modest increases in York County’s larger municipalities contributed significantly to the overall trend.

The city of Saco grew by 1,899 residents, or 10.3%, between 2010 and 2020. The city of Biddeford grew by 1,275 residents, or 6%. And the census tracts that are now in the city of Sanford grew by 1,184 residents, or 5.7%. (Sanford became a city in 2013.)

The town of York grew by 1,194 residents (9.5%), Kennebunk by 738 (6.8%), Berwick by 704 (9.7%), Kittery by 580 (6.1%), Eliot by 513 (8.3%), Hollis by 464 (10.8%), Lebanon by 438 (7.3%), North Berwick by 402 (8.8%), Buxton by 342 (4.3%), Old Orchard Beach by 336 (3.9%), Limerick by 296 (10.2%), Shapleigh by 253 (9.5%), South Berwick by 247 (3.4%), Waterboro by 243 (3.2%), Arundel by 242 (6%), Acton by 224 (9.2%), Lyman by 181 (4.2%), Limington by 179 (4.8%), Dayton by 164 (8.3%), Kennebunkport by 155 (4.5%), Newfield by 126 (8.3%), Cornish by 105 (7.5%), and Alfred by 54 (1.8%).

The town of Parsonsfield had 1,791 residents in 2020, 107 fewer (-5.6%) than it did in 2010.