A public school teacher bartends in Portland three nights a week to make ends meet, but she’s still sinking 70% of her income into housing.
A Bangor man with diabetes skips his insulin at the end of every month in order to afford a recent rent increase of 45%.
A widow in Portland made purchase bids on 17 houses – but lost them all. Now, she’s renting a trailer with her son and their pets. She says the household is surviving, but not living.
The affordable housing crisis is a national problem that is being felt acutely in Maine, affecting people from all walks of life, in all corners of the state. Would-be buyers and renters find themselves in a tidal wave of demand, competing for a limited supply of housing. Mainers who have homes are making difficult decisions about how to pay for them, and which other expenses have to be put off as a result.
How do they afford rent that’s going up when take-home pay has barely budged? How do they keep the heat on when oil is $5 a gallon and space heaters drive up constantly increasing electric bills? What if there’s an emergency?
Rent has become unaffordable for nearly half of all Maine tenants, according to data from Harvard University.
A study published last summer by the university’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 41% of tenants in Maine were burdened by the cost of rent, with almost one-fifth “severely” cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of their gross incomes on housing.
Southern Maine in particular has been short on affordable housing for years, but the pandemic exacerbated the problem with the arrival of remote workers and others escaping more crowded areas, which drove up prices and further restricted inventory.
The pressure on the market shows no sign of abating. MaineHousing expects rental prices to continue to rise in 2023, compounded by inflationary pressures on landlords and a development pipeline that is constricted by ongoing workforce shortages and supply chain troubles.
Market-rate rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland was $1,721 in 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For 2023, it’s expected to be $1,859 – 34% higher than four years ago.
And that’s just the fair-market rate, determined by the federal government. In its most recent data available, MaineHousing reported that the median rent for a two-bedroom in Portland in 2020 was $1,880 including utilities, an amount unaffordable to more than 70% of households.
The real estate company Zillow puts the average rental rate for a two-bedroom in Portland much higher, at $2,500, 19% higher than the national average. Luxury units are popping up all over the area. One downtown building was recently advertising one-bedroom apartments for $4,500 a month.
People who are pushed out of Portland have flocked to nearby places such as South Portland, Westbrook and Biddeford, creating a ripple effect by increasing prices in towns that were once considered affordable.
Market rates in Biddeford have risen steeply over the past decade, from $863 for a two-bedroom apartment in 2012 to $1,387 in 2023, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That’s a 60% increase.
Many longtime residents are struggling to keep up. A city survey conducted last summer found that 70% of respondents knew someone who had to move because the city had become too expensive. Biddeford officials said the longer people have lived in the city, the less likely they are to be able to afford it.
Some communities, like Portland, have adopted rent control ordinances. Many are pushing to build more affordable housing. MaineHousing is helping through numerous state programs, and the agency says there are nearly 3,300 affordable units in the pipeline, up from about 1,700 at the end of 2021. But MaineHousing estimates the state is 20,000 to 25,000 units short of what it needs to end the affordable housing shortage.
Portland voters passed a rent control ordinance in 2020, capping annual rent increases at the rate of inflation. Under the ordinance, landlords can raise rents by a maximum of 5% when apartments voluntarily turn over. But, a group of landlords known as the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine is trying to put a proposal on the city ballot to allow landlords to lift that cap when apartments become vacant.
In the meantime, evictions are on the rise. According to MaineHousing’s 2023 outlook report, they were up 22% last year, coinciding with the end of pandemic aid through the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. Most of the increase, the agency said, can be attributed to “no-cause” evictions used by developers to remove tenants from units to renovate them.
The cost of buying a house also has skyrocketed, boxing many prospective homeowners out of the market and keeping more people in rentals. The average home price in Cumberland County was $485,000 in 2022, requiring a salary of $151,500 to afford it. The median Cumberland County income is $87,900. The statewide median is $68,000.
We’ve been asking readers in recent months to tell us their housing stories. We’ve heard from dozens of people about the sacrifices they’re making to keep roofs over their heads.
Some have moved in with family. Some have downsized. Some have given up on the dream of home ownership. Others have held off on needed renovations, skipped medications, sworn off restaurants and taken in roommates.
This is a closer look at how some Mainers are getting by.
Table of Contents
THE AGONY OF THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
The anxiety is never far from Heatheranne Charlton’s mind.
She calls it the “renter’s agony,” the worry over how she’ll pay her bills and how much more of a rent increase she can afford.
It’s a constant burden, but the anxiety starts to spike in the fall as her annual lease renewal draws closer. How much will this next increase be? How will she pay it? What are her options?
Charlton, 55, has lived with her son in their 850-square-foot Portland condo for four years.
The first year, she managed to dodge an increase on her $1,600 monthly rent.
The second year, she breathed a sigh of relief that it would only increase by $80.
Then, in her third year, it jumped almost $250, to $1,920. Utilities are not included. She’s had to scrimp and save to make it work.
But her landlords announced in December that they are selling the building and will not renew her lease. She has until April to find somewhere else to live.
So now, she’s on the hunt for a two-bedroom apartment for herself and her 20-year-old son. Rent has to be no more than $2,100.
The search is practically a part-time job for Charlton, who already works full time as a practice manager for a criminal defense attorney.
The hunt hasn’t been going well.
“It’s all garbage,” she said.
A Maine native, Charlton has lived in Portland for over 30 years. It’s home, and it’s where she wants to stay. But given her budget and what’s available, that may not be possible.
“It’s just heartbreaking for me,” she said.
Even if she’s able to stay in Portland, it won’t be easy to leave her home. After years of living with a partner or in a house-sharing arrangement, it’s the longest she and her son have ever lived on their own, and she’s proud of that.
It’s her safe haven. It took 10 months before she finally felt settled enough to “emotionally unpack” and start buying furniture. She’s made the space her own, adding pops of color with a blue couch, bright yellow armchairs and prints of famous paintings (many featuring redheads like herself) that she loves even though they may not match the rest of the decor.
“I absolutely was just ecstatic, am still ecstatic, to live here,” she said. The most recent rent increase means she’s spending almost half of her monthly income on housing. The first paycheck of every month goes to her landlord, and two weeks later she gets another $1,985 to cover everything else.
She does what she can to keep her costs low – buying an inexpensive brand of coffee, turning the heat off when she leaves for work. She doesn’t buy new clothes and she tries to combine all her errands around town to save trips when she can.
But it hasn’t been enough.
She’s had to start charging her son, Andrew, $450 a month in rent and she recently took on a “side hustle” as a licensed aesthetician.
“The thought of getting another part-time job somewhere is soul-sucking,” she said. “But if I’m going to have to do a side hustle, it might as well be something that I absolutely love.”
After taxes, Charlton’s day job brings in about $50,000 each year.
“On paper, I make fairly good money – but unless you make over $100,000, you’re really falling into that slippery slope category,” she said. “It’s hard not to go to a dark place, thinking I’m never going to get out from under and keep a roof over my head.”
Already stretched, she knows that going up to $2,100 a month – however necessary – would be rough.
“I will absolutely be hand to mouth,” she said.
FAR AWAY, BUT GRATEFUL
Romarick Ndala hated living at the Motel 6 in Portland.
The 39-year-old asylum seeker from Gabon compared his months in the hotel to prison. He couldn’t cook his own food. He couldn’t receive mail. He couldn’t get anywhere he wanted to go without help.
It was when he connected with LifeChurch in Gorham and Hope Acts in Portland that his life began to change, he said. Hope Acts is a nonprofit that helps asylum seekers and immigrants transition to life in Greater Portland. It runs Hope House, which serves as temporary housing for up to 13 asylum seekers, including Ndala until recently.
“It was a bit difficult because (General Assistance) gave me a voucher but it wasn’t easy for me to find a place,” he said.
Now, Ndala lives in Hollis with two roommates from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s hopeful that his wife and two young children will be able to join him before long. He’s never been gone for so long, never been this far away, and it’s difficult.
“By the grace of God,” they’ll come soon and he’ll be able to see them, he said.
The house he lives in is owned by his pastor. His rent is $600 for his room, which includes utilities, and it is paid with General Assistance.
The large four-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom house is sparsely furnished, but it’s clean and warm and there’s space to make a meal. He was happy to find African food in some of the Portland supermarkets, though he also cooks a fair amount of pasta and burgers.
Hollis wouldn’t have been his first choice. It’s more than 20 miles from Portland, which is home to many resources for new Mainers. But he feels blessed to have a roof over his head and a car – a 1998 Mercury Mountaineer, given to him by the church.
He calls his situation a miracle, proof of God’s hands in his life.
Ndala had only $30 when he arrived in the U.S. just under a year ago. He hopes to start working as soon as he gets his work authorization, which he expects will be in a few weeks.
He has a master’s degree from France in management and business administration, but he plans to become a plumber. He’s always been fascinated by plumbing, he said.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, he volunteers at Hope Acts, translating and delivering meals from the church to Motel 6.
Otherwise, he spends his days praying, reading the Bible and practicing his English.
He was lucky to connect with the right people, who helped him get into a house, but the housing situation for new Mainers has reached a crisis level, Ndala said. The budget for General Assistance cannot keep pace with the cost of rent, and there aren’t enough apartments out there for all the people who need them.
“When you go to General Assistance to get a room or to go to a shelter, it is not possible,” he said.
During his search, Ndala was put on a waiting list. But there were hundreds of names before his, he said. Some asylum seekers who had been living in hotels had to leave but had nowhere to go, he said. Many left Maine to see if they would have better luck in Canada.
“It’s very stressful to live in that kind of condition,” he said.
BEANS, RICE AND SALVAGED FURNITURE
Thomas Grebouski is only half joking when he says his apartment search was “traumatic.”
He responded to at least 50 different listings but was able to see only three apartments in person.
He had to be ready at all times to view an apartment, with little to no notice. He’d often schedule an appointment, only to be told a few hours later that the unit had already been rented.
Grebouski, 28, paints houses part-time and is a full-time student, studying English at the University of Southern Maine. He moved back in with his parents in Berwick during the pandemic, but when they later decided to sell their house, he needed to find somewhere to live.
Grebouski credits landing his East End apartment to the blank check, ready to go, in his pocket.
“(The landlord) was like, ‘Well, you’ve got a check, you’re the most serious contender,’” he said.
The one-bedroom apartment is “quirky,” Grebouski said, pointing to a square of wooden floor between the kitchen and living room that at some point was painted bright blue.
It’s $1,450 a month, no utilities included.
He’s been told the rent will increase by $150 to $250 in June, but he’s just relieved the apartment won’t become an Airbnb.
The bedroom is large, the closets are spacious – and if Grebouski presses his face to the closet window, he can see the water.
But the place is also drafty and he has to use space heaters to stay warm. The kitchen appliances are old and there’s next to no cabinet or counter space.
After navigating the rental market though, he’s not complaining.
“I think that makes me not want to raise any fuss or concerns. It’s just like, whatever, I’ll take it,” he said. “I want to have a place to live. I didn’t want to go through that experience again.”
He and his girlfriend initially moved in together, but when she received a too-good-to-pass-up opportunity to get her master’s degree out of state, he found himself living alone.
He had enough money to get by for a few months, but had to drop down to part-time work once the next semester started. He was soon dipping into his savings.
The apartment has two small rooms that, while not technically considered bedrooms, could be used as such with a little creativity. He decided to advertise for a roommate.
In three weeks, he received over 400 responses.
It was hard to turn away so many people, many with heartbreaking stories.
“One … was a 50-year-old teacher, one or two couples with kids, and numerous people with jobs that should enable them to live somewhere better, other than these tiny rooms I have here,” he said.
Many others were asylum seekers from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ultimately, Grebouski settled on Alison Buchsbaum, a high school teacher around his own age. He’s an introvert and she’s an extrovert, so they balance each other well, he said.
With half the rent covered, he’s no longer living paycheck to paycheck, but he’s always worried that something could happen.
He tries to maintain a healthy balance in his savings account – but during the school year, he usually spends more than he earns. He works extra hours each summer to make up for it.
Grebouski has had to cut back on luxuries in order to make ends meet. He eats a lot of beans, rice and salad. Most of his furniture was either given to him or salvaged. He doesn’t go out to restaurants or bars.
“My parents like to ask me ‘How’s Portland?’ and I tell them ‘I hear it’s a nice town,’” he said.
OPEN THE DOOR, HIT THE BED
Alison Buchsbaum isn’t sure the room into which she’s squeezed her bed and dresser can technically be considered a bedroom.
It’s tight quarters. There’s no closet, and she can’t open the door all the way without hitting her bed frame.
But with her Munjoy Hill location and affordable rent, she’s not about to quibble.
The 29-year-old biology teacher at Cape Elizabeth High School moved into Thomas Grebouski’s one-bedroom in July for $725 a month.
Grebouski has a large bedroom and Buchsbaum, who pays half the rent, sleeps in a room only slightly larger than his (admittedly spacious) closet.
But she has two small rooms to herself. She chose the larger one (11 feet by 7 feet), which doesn’t have a closet, for her bedroom. The smaller room (10 feet by 7 feet), which does have a closet, has become her “sitting room.” It houses her piano, TV, bookshelf and exercise equipment, as well as her clothes in the closet.
“Yes, my room is tiny. … But I have a separate room, with a door that I can close, that is my own personal space,” she said. “And to me, that’s huge because I have never had that in any place that I’ve lived, where I have a private space that’s not my bedroom.”
Buchsbaum moved to Portland from New Hampshire with the goal of experiencing the city fully, which often requires spending a little money. She goes out to bars and restaurants. She’s recently gotten back into swing dancing. Outside of getting to know Portland, she’s an avid traveler.
She compromises on space in order to afford and enjoy living in the city.
Buchsbaum considers herself lucky. Her search process went relatively smoothly and she saw comparable apartments with more roommates in less desirable parts of the city going for $1,000 to $1,200.
It isn’t perfect, of course.
The building is old. The tired wiring struggles to keep up, so using “too many” appliances at once (like the toaster and the microwave) will blow a fuse, necessitating a trip to the basement down two steep flights of stairs.
She likes her landlords and said they’ve been good about fixing things. She’s not looking to rock the boat.
“Because the demand for housing is so high, you don’t want to be a challenging tenant and you don’t want to ask for too much, because they could just kick you out or not renew your lease and then get someone else to come in and charge them more,” she said. “The power is definitely in the hands of the people who own land right now or own property right now because they can charge what they want.”
She would have liked to live alone, she said, but it would be too expensive on her teacher’s salary of about $65,000.
“I would rather save money and live with someone else now,” she said. “That’s a lot of money that I can be saving towards actually buying a place for myself in hopefully the nearer future.”
TWELVE HOMES IN 13 YEARS
Sitting in his living room surrounded by artwork, games and his belongings, with his cat, Tourmaline, curled up beside him, Even Makara still doesn’t feel at home.
Makara, 31, has moved 12 times in the last 13 years. He has been homeless twice.
“Everywhere feels like a temporary base of operations to me,” he said. “It very rarely feels like a home.”
He’s had to move for all sorts of reasons: upsizing, downsizing, bad landlords, friends going separate ways, better opportunities, his divorce.
“It takes a long time for me to feel like I’m at home in a space and it’s not like, oh, we’re going to move again in six months,” he said.
He and his girlfriend, Cheri Haire, and their three cats moved in with a friend in Biddeford in November.
Rent is $1,400 a month, including heat, and this time they’re planning to stay for as long as they’re able.
The apartment is less expensive than many others in the area – Makara said the previous owner of the building worked out an agreement with the new one to keep rent stable for the existing tenants – but with a roughly $150 electric bill, a $415 car payment and substantial medical debt, the monthly costs add up.
They’re grateful to live there, but Makara wishes he didn’t still need a roommate.
Makara was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and fatigue disorder, after more than a year of being sent from doctor to doctor.
His pain and inability to carry a full workload cost him his job in the health care industry. So for the last year or two he’s been self-employed, driving for Uber, delivering DoorDash orders, pet sitting – whatever pays the bills. But sometimes the pain is so bad that he can only work sporadically, if at all. He’s waiting to start receiving disability benefits.
Depending on how much he’s able to work, Makara can earn anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a month. His girlfriend and roommate cover most of their expenses.
“If it wasn’t for Cheri picking up so much, I would probably be out on the streets,” he said. “I can’t work enough, with the amount of pain I’ve been in recently, to really make a decent living.”
He does what he can to help.
If Haire is out sick, he picks up extra work if he’s able. He tries not to let the car fall behind on payments or maintenance.
“I’m kind of like the fallback,” he said.
He saves money where he can. He says he lost his food stamps due to a mix-up with the Department of Health and Human Services, and is trying to get them back. In the meantime, with the “astronomical” price of food, he’s been skipping meals more often than not.
As the cost of living rises, he and Haire fear they may have to move again.
“As much as we love Maine, we may have to jump ship,” Haire said.
They’d like to stay in southern Maine, with its concentration of health care services.
“With all the myriad health problems I have – and Cheri’s got some body pains and stuff like that, and mental health concerns – the best health care is down here,” Makara said.
He grew up in the Great Lakes region, but he’s grown to love the ocean and coast – and as a transgender man, he feels safer in Maine than in many places, he said.
The ultimate dream, though it is probably years in the future, is to buy a plot of land, and start a “queer commune,” where friends come and build tiny houses.
Makara is in school part-time, working toward a business degree with the eventual goal of opening a holistic and sexual wellness boutique. Haire, an expressive arts therapist, has been building up her caseload. She hopes that by summer they’ll have enough money to consistently meet their expenses, and that by the end of the year they will have paid back friends who’ve loaned them money. And then they can tackle their credit card debt and start saving.
“We’re really hoping to buy land and build before it gets to the point that we can’t afford Maine anymore,” Makara said. “It’s kind of a race against inflation and quietly hoping that the housing market crashes again.”
SKIPPING GOURMET FOOD — AND MEDICATIONS
Sandy O’Rourke was prepared to move into a small, shared apartment in Freeport. It wasn’t ideal. It was tiny. Her cat, Shadow, wouldn’t be able to go outside. And at 58, O’Rourke didn’t love the idea of having roommates.
But for $600 a month, it seemed hard to pass up, especially because she lives on a fixed income. Her lengthy search had left her with few possibilities.
She had one more apartment tour scheduled: a two-bedroom in South China for $1,250, plus a $25 pet fee, a month. From the photos on Zillow, it didn’t look promising. She kept the appointment to be polite.
Now it’s home.
It was the kitchen that sold her. The room is bright and spacious – and she can watch the Sheepscot River, practically in her backyard, from the sink while she washes dishes.
“I like to say it reminds me to flow with life because I’m always looking out at the flow of the river and just being able to open my door and hear it whenever,” she said. “If I find myself stressed, I just listen to it and it calms me down.”
She has been there since last March.
O’Rourke moved to Maine from Massachusetts in April 2020, when her partner at the time inherited a farm in Winslow.
“So the first time I ever came to Maine was in my U-Haul truck – with all my possessions, driving over the bridge,” she said. After an unexpected breakup last January, O’Rourke started apartment hunting.
With no ties to any particular part of the state, she was willing to go anywhere. She looked at apartments from Lincolnville to Sanford.
But O’Rourke has poor credit as a result of a divorce. She’s on disability because of debilitating migraines caused by Lyme disease. And she has Shadow. In many ways, she’s not the ideal rental candidate.
She got lucky with a landlord who was willing to take a chance on her and a sister willing to loan her the roughly $5,000 it cost to move in (first month’s rent, a security deposit, a full oil tank).
She relies on space heaters to help offset some of the cost of the oil, but her electric bill doubled from $60 in the summer to $120 in December.
After utilities, her primary costs are food and medical expenses. She tries to keep costs down where she can. A pescatarian, she cooks a lot of macaroni and cheese and tuna noodle casserole instead of the more gourmet food she’d prefer. Her medications cost around $150 a month and the copays add up. If she runs out in the middle of the month, sometimes she goes without until she can afford it again.
Her tight budget makes it hard to plan for emergencies. The flat tire she got before Christmas “threw a monkey wrench” into her holiday season.
Still, O’Rourke is pleased to have carved a life for herself in Maine.
“I’m really happy here,” she said.
PRICED OUT OF HOMETOWN AND CAR
Steven Burr thought he’d live in Kennebunk forever. He grew up there and it’s where his family has lived for generations.
But as the price of rentals in the coastal town crept up and up and up, he found himself pushed northward to Biddeford.
It’s been almost 13 years since Burr, 60, called Kennebunk home.
Now he lives in a two-bedroom turned three-bedroom apartment in Biddeford with his daughter and two teenage granddaughters, and he fears they’ll be priced out of Biddeford soon too. He doesn’t know where they would go.
Their rent has nearly doubled since they moved in, with the bulk of the increase in the last year.
Burr’s social security checks have not increased at the same pace. He brings in $1,200 a month, and has moved from paying half to paying one-third of the rent.
His daughter, Cyra Bryant, picks up the rest.
Bryant makes about $1,800 a month working in loss prevention at Walmart. That’s how much they pay in rent, which is 60% of their combined monthly income.
The apartment is small. It’s a two-bedroom with a dining room they’ve repurposed as a bedroom, and Bryant shares a bedroom with her 13-year-old daughter.
And then there’s their dog Rosie, a shepherd mix; three cats, Max, Magic and Watson; a hamster, Chip, and a bird, Pudgy.
It’s cramped, but what other options do they have?
“People say I could apply for subsidized housing, but that would leave her in the lurch financially,” Burr said, gesturing to his daughter.
Plus living alone wouldn’t be healthy for Burr, who is on disability with bipolar disorder. Being with family is a comfort to him. So is the family menagerie.
“Anything I’d get for subsidized housing wouldn’t allow the pets and I’d lose that (emotional) support,” he said.
Burr also hasn’t owned a car since 2009. He couldn’t afford to keep up with the payments and insurance. When he needs to go to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, he borrows Bryant’s car. That only works if they’re living together.
They pay the rent first. Then the electricity, then food, then anything else if there’s any money left over.
“Sometimes it comes down to paying some of those smaller bills and buying food, so obviously I buy food because we need it, and then I’ll catch up later,” Bryant said. “We’ll get like a month behind, but then we’ll catch up and then we’ll get behind,”
She was promoted in the fall and she hopes that her new position in loss prevention will help get her finances in order, but it sometimes feels impossible to get ahead.
Something always happens. A few months ago, for example, someone hit her car and took off without leaving a note. Repairing the damage cost $2,800.
And the necessities, like food, cost much more than they used to.
“Nobody’s asking for a handout. We’re not asking for anybody to give us anything. We’ve paid our way and we’ve carried our weight and we always have,” Burr said. “I’m just looking for a way to stay.”