Robert Bonner and Dona Robins are hoping to stay in Belfast, but are having a difficult time finding a place to rent. The housing crisis is so bad in midcoast Maine that on Craigslist, there are more ads from people looking for a place to live than actual places to live. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — In times past, when apartment hunters went to websites such as Craigslist to look for a place to live, they would find an assortment of rental housing to sift through.

But times have changed, at least in some communities, where demand for housing is so great that pages dedicated to rental housing have sprouted more posts advertising apartment seekers than apartments.

“I think there’s more people looking than there are places,” said Dona Robins, a rental seeker whose Craigslist ad has not yet resulted in any midcoast Maine apartment offers. “It’s a difficult thing.”

She and her husband, Robert Bonner, sold their home in Sedona, Arizona, last spring, right before the pandemic began. Last summer, the retired couple traveled in their RV to Belfast, where they had previously visited and decided it was where they wanted to relocate.

They wanted to rent before they looked for a place to buy. But they hadn’t imagined that the rental housing market would be this tight.

Their Craigslist post features a smiling photo of the couple standing in front of a mountain and a few words advertising their excellent references, Bonner’s construction and maintenance skills and their willingness to either caretake or pay fair market rent.

But it has not led them to a new home.

Next month, they will need to move out of the winter rental they did manage to find, but where they go next is anyone’s guess. They are hoping that, despite the odds, a two-bedroom apartment will materialize for them. But they aren’t counting on it.

“I don’t know if we can stay here now,” Robins said. “It’s to the point where we can’t, probably, stay in Maine.”

There likely are a number of reasons why rental housing is so scarce and demand is so high, according to Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley. He has heard that some developers, stung by the housing bubble and the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, put the brakes on new construction which reduced available housing stock. And some of the properties in the city have been turned into short-term rentals, which removes them from the long-term housing stock.

“It’s multi-faceted, and a complicated thing. Not easily rectified or addressed,” he said.

But he thinks the most important factor is the way that more and more people are able to work remotely and live wherever they want. When the coronavirus pandemic sent office workers home in droves last spring, some of them moved out of cities and to places including midcoast Maine.

“The biggest sea change is that everybody realized you don’t have to live where your job is,” Hurley said. “All of a sudden, people said, ‘I can live in Belfast, Maine, and do my work.’ Many people are doing that all over the country.”

Officials in Belfast, a city of 6,700 people, have been worrying about the problem of affordable housing scarcity for years. It turns out that the community also doesn’t have a lot of surplus market-rate housing at hand that can easily absorb all the people who are looking for places to live.

Kym Sanderson, a Belfast property manager, said that the demand has been great.

“It’s been crazy,” she said. “People have been calling all winter and all spring. I don’t really even have anything open. I just tell people, ‘Sorry — I don’t have anything.’ I can’t really even advise them where to go. I just don’t know of anything right now.”

All of that means that Robins and Bonner are fully expecting to have to relocate again — and wishing that they hadn’t sold their RV.

“We’re kind of kicking ourselves now,” Robins said. “Because it was a place to live.”

Buying a home also seems impossible now. Because of the real estate boom, houses are scarce, and the ones on the market cost more money than they are willing or able to spend. Still, they have resources and will be able to go somewhere.

They know it’s worse for people who can’t just pick up and move.

“The people I really feel sorry for are the people who are living and working here and they don’t have a house,” Bonner said.

He and Robins believe that the housing crunch in Belfast is made worse by the growth of short-term housing, such as Airbnb rentals. That happened in Sedona, where they owned a home, and it affected the quality of life for residents.

“Everybody put their houses on Airbnb and it just went nuts,” Bonner said. “It became kind of a nightmare. Do we want to just become short-term rental meccas? Or do you want to know your neighbors? It’s a strange thing, and it really hurts the working people.”

That’s a conversation happening in many communities in Maine. Still, Hurley cautioned, there isn’t a simple solution.

“Airbnb, I think it’s an aspect,” he said. “On the other hand, do people have a right to make a living? I know a lot of people who have Airbnbs. That’s how they make a living.”