Column: Short-term rentals, affordable housing, my garden apartment – Courier-Gazette & Camden Herald

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I came late to gardening. My mother was a teacher and spent summers out-of-doors, nurturing plants. I established my individuality by refusing to garden.

In my twenties I spent a decade in and out of apartments, with visits to Mom in between. A mortgage with Joe, when we moved to Maine in 1988, gave us the first place where I felt I could claim ownership. We could build the kitchen and bathroom we wanted, he could run the tools for his work, we planted a swing set in the backyard and raised our family.

The first summer in Warren, yearning for my own tomatoes I tried out gardening and learned that my resistance to dirt under the fingernails was still strong. There were plenty of other things to do and it felt good to eat food that was grown well by those who lived nearby.

Mom sold her house in 2002 and moved to a cottage at a retirement community in Rockland. The value of what she had purchased with a GI loan in 1959 had increased twenty-fold. She bought her co-op share at Bartlett Woods with cash and had enough left over to supplement her retirement income for the six years remaining to her.

Old people do what we all do, if we are to live. They grow older. There came a time when my mother knew she could no longer live alone. She sold her cottage share and bought the house on Broadway where, six months later, she died at home with her children nearby.

During the two years it had taken for us to find the house, Mom often said she was looking for a place that could take care of me when she was not there to do it anymore.

A couple of years after Mom died, I learned about something called Airbnb, advertised as a way to host travelers in one’s home. The information I saw described something one step removed from couch-surfing, a way to help cover the expenses of living in a place that was enough-too-big to have room for guests. With property taxes of around $5000 a year, and a first-floor bedroom that had its own private bath, I signed on.

Before I committed to my first rental, I talked to Code Enforcement Officer John Root and Frank Isganitis, an owner of one of the city’s larger bed & breakfast inns. I didn’t want my little side hustle to break any ordinances or have a negative impact on Rockland’s hospitality businesses. Neither saw any real issues, especially when I explained to the first that Airbnb would track my income so I could pay taxes, and to the second that my rental rate would be so low as to attract a clientele that could otherwise not afford any accommodation in our area.

My guests came to Rockland from all over the world with the intention of eating in our restaurants, sailing on the schooners, and browsing the galleries. What they saved on accommodation was spent nearby and along the way they saw how at least one local family lived.

In time, Airbnb spread. Speculators started buying homes in order to turn them into money generators.

Mine was the first rental in Knox County to appear on the Airbnb platform. Year-round apartments and rooms became harder to find and more expensive; Rockland created a permitting process for short term rentals, and my taxes got paid on time. That was saying a lot for someone making the $11.80 an hour I received four years into my full-time journalism career; my husband’s art-based business just kept itself afloat in those years following the Great Recession.

Today, Knox County has more than 400 rentals listed on Airbnb. Of these, three-quarters are complete houses or apartments – potential homes.

Much in my life changed in 2013 and I responded with a decision to go back to school, renting the house for $1300 a month to a series of tenants who ranged from good friends to total strangers, from reliable to untrustworthy.

At school I lived in apartments, shared rooms, houses in quiet places, and dormitories on campus. Property owners in Bar Harbor have been using homes as capital for … well, for as long as there have been houses on Mount Desert Island and ways to bring tourists to its beauty.

As a result, the MDI Rental Resource page on Facebook lists houses and apartments, most rented by the week in three seasons and available for longer periods only from November through April. During the first weeks of September this year, there were seven requests posted for seasonal places and an equal number for year-round homes. Nine owners offered winter rentals with three advertising long-term housing.

Sounds almost like an even break, until you consider that about half of the requests came from year-round workers with families, with the rest from college students who start their year in September and complete it in June. Rents run as high as $2300 for a single-wide seasonal in Sullivan, an hour’s drive around Frenchman Bay to get to one’s place of employment.

At last spring’s town meeting, in two different warrant articles, citizens of Thomaston discussed affordable housing and a secretary’s pay. In the first discussion, a building contractor suggested that “affordable” meant a house costing about $280,000. The subject of secretaries came up when voting on a Police Department budget line that would pay a wage of $18 per hour for fewer than 32 hours.

A recent state employment report gave the median annual wage for Knox County workers in 2021 as $47,019. Plugging that figure into an online mortgage calculator results in a $140,000 mortgage with a down payment of $60,000. Hardly affordable on a secretary’s pay, and not really enough to buy a house.

The secret ballot part of that warrant presented a question asking voters if we wanted to make a permanent commitment to keeping the former Maine State Prison yard as open land. We decided to keep our options open.

Now the town is holding a series of public workshops to bring together people on “all sides of the Thomaston Green issue,” according to a Sept. 14 article on the VillageSoup website, with the goal of “establish[ing] a plan for the community to move forward.” These professionally facilitated meetings are meant to “provide a neutral setting for community participants to present as many different perspectives of the Thomaston Green as possible,” the story said.

Usually, I would be at those meetings prepared with notes and quotes, to share my views on the future of the space between Route 1 and the Saint George River. Instead, I will leave the time available at the workshops to other voices; I have this time and place to express myself.

I live in subsidized housing, made possible because my income from Social Security and a cobbled together five-day work week is low. When I owned a house without a mortgage, I could barely afford Rockland’s property tax on a four-bedroom home. Now my rent is linked to my income and I live in 664 square feet without a yard or storage space.

I miss the yard. A nearby friend hosts a small garden shed for my shovels, snow tires, and garden tools. Tomatoes grow on my windowsill.

The summer before I went back to school I took a job on a gardening crew. Of the many things Hands and Knees Gardens taught me, I am especially grateful for the knowledge that plants want to grow.

After graduation I moved back to Broadway, took an interest in my own garden, and came to love the peace offered by green and growing things. The financial realities of selling the house at the moment I did seem to have put behind me the experience of stepping out of the kitchen to lie in the hammock, drying laundry in the open air, and living at ground level rather than three stories above it all.

When people talk about the future of what is now referred to as the Thomaston Green, they often mention housing. The last proposal calling for affordable apartments would have put them along the Route 1 edge of the land. Maybe that is because the planners and facilitators think poor, old, and disabled people don’t deserve a quiet place with a bit of a yard where they can grow their own tomatoes.

In the city where I used to live Mayor Ed Glaser suggested, earlier this month, a regulation to treat non-owner-occupied short-term-rentals as the businesses they clearly are. At a series of meetings on the issue, according to stories in The Courier, several people spoke out against Glaser’s proposal.

Of thirteen opponents quoted in the articles I read, six receive their tax bills out of town. Two of those live elsewhere in Knox County and the rest outside of Maine. A couple of property owners, one who lives in Camden and another in Washington State, are receiving tax exemptions of $25,000 or more, usually only available to those living at the property in question.

Three of those speaking against the idea were not found in the Rockland Tax Bill database. All of them talked about money.

Houses are often confused with cash but the highest and best use of housing is as the place where the server at your favorite restaurant sleeps after a long day carrying heavy trays in and out of a hot kitchen, as the source of privacy and contemplation for your children’s teachers and the health care worker who are waiting for you when an accident happens, as the home returned to by the cashier at the supermarket, the ticket agent at the ferry landing, the secretary in your doctor’s office or police department.

To those who own more shelter than they need, housing is a commodity; to those with inadequate shelter, housing is something to beg for from others. When someone treats real estate as a commodity more valued than those who live inside it, that person is making a business decision, one in which the benefits come with risks.

On Sept. 12, Mayor Glaser offered to amend the proposed ban to allow current owners to reapply for permits for non-owner-occupied short term rental units, “until said property is sold, changes ownership, or otherwise fails to renew a permit.”

It’s a pretty meaty bone to throw at the folks from Indiana who pay the city about $67,000 in taxes for the privilege of owning $2.75 million in assessed value on Samoset Road.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.


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