Eric Dyer, right, was the first person to move into Penobscot Landing on Wight Street in Belfast. The 59-year-old had been living in a shared apartment in Rockland, a situation that wasn't ideal. "I love it here," he said of his new home. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — A new 25-unit development that opened this fall on Wight Street in Belfast can’t by itself fix the region’s persistent housing crisis.

But ask Eric Dyer what the project did for him, and he doesn’t mince words or hesitate. Before he moved into  Penobscot Landing, the 59-year-old was living in an apartment in Rockland that he shared with a roommate. It wasn’t a great situation, and he was paying $600 per month — a big percentage of his income.

That’s all changed. Now, he has his own bright, spacious apartment that he shares only with his dog. It’s centrally located to the grocery store, the hospital and downtown Belfast, the neighbors are friendly, and the subsidized housing costs him only $196 per month.

Penobscot Landing, a housing development for low-income seniors, opened this fall on Wight Street in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

The smile on his face when he talks about his new home is genuine.  

“I always say, ‘I went to hell to get to heaven.’ That’s exactly what happened,” Dyer said. “I love it here.”

There are a lot of reasons why the midcoast and many other parts of Maine are in an affordable housing crunch. Rents have gone up, with some units taken off the market as owners have decided to move toward short-term housing such as Airbnb instead. The state also just plain doesn’t have enough affordable places for people to live.

According to the 2020 annual report from MaineHousing, the Maine State Housing Authority, the state needs about 25,000 more affordable housing units to respond effectively to the need.

New construction in general slowed down significantly during the Great Recession. As well, even after Maine voters approved a multi-million dollar housing bond for Maine seniors in 2015, the funds were blocked for three years by Gov. Paul LePage and only released by Gov. Janet Mills in early 2019.

Housing advocates hailed the move as a way to help Maine seniors. Among the projects that received tax credit funding through the bond were two separate developments for people 55 and up on Wight Street.  

Penobscot Landing, with 25 one-bedroom and efficiency units, was built by Portland-based Developers Collaborative. The property management company, C&C Realty Management, LLC, leased to the first occupants on Oct. 1.

The second, Belfast Acres, also features 25 units. It will be open, hopefully, by the end of the month, according to Heather Deane, the CEO of Realty Resources in Rockport. That’s the company that built and will manage the development. Realty Resources has a wait list and it is filling units from that, but some apartments are still available, Deane said.

Demand has been very high, officials from both companies said.

“There is an incredible need,” Amy Babb, the director of property management at C&C Realty Management, said. “There is a complete mismatch between the need and the housing stock that’s available.”

No one in the building will pay more than 30 percent of their income, she said, and the majority of tenants live on fixed income. All the units will be rented to people who are considered to be either extremely low income or very low income. Babb said she expects the building to be completely full by Dec. 31, with 21 tenants moved in already and two more coming this week. There are still 40 people on the waiting list.

“People were on our inquiry list before we even got started,” she said.

Some of those tenants came from bad situations, according to Bob Chandler, the onsite manager for Penobscot Landing. One man who recently moved into the complex had been paying $795 rent for a home that had actually been condemned. The furnace didn’t work and the man relied on a space heater to keep it warm enough. Even so, the rent was still about 90 percent of his social security income, leaving him very little to spend on food and other necessities.

Other new tenants include a person who had been living in a camper, another who had been in a basement and a third who was living in a sibling’s garage.

Now, most of their rents are in the $100 to $300 range for a brand-new apartment with heat included.

The community room at Penobscot Landing on Wight Street in Belfast, a new housing development for low-income people aged 55 and over, is decorated for the season. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

“This is what they really needed,” Chandler said. “Senior housing with no minimum income. You can make $5,000 a year and still live here.”  

Municipal officials are glad and relieved to have Penobscot Landing and Belfast Acres in the city.

“This is part of the solution,” Mayor Eric Sanders said. “It’s not the solution, but it’s one of the steps. We’ve added housing, which adds capacity and creates movement. It takes a little bit of air out of the balloon, in a good way.”

City Councilor Neal Harkness said that he’s spoken with some people who have moved into Penobscot Landing.

“One person told me it’s the nicest apartment they’ve ever lived in,” he said.

For Harkness, the fact that the developments are filling up quickly means that there’s still a need for more housing. He and others hope to hear soon if a proposed development at 115 Congress St., the former site of the Belfast Public Works, will be allocated low income housing tax credits. Developers Collaborative is in charge of that project, too, and has received local permits to move forward with it. 

“The immediate success, the fact that they’re already filling up, I hope sends out a signal to other developers and people interested that the need is here,” Harkness said. “It’s still a drop in the bucket, but enough drops, and the bucket gets filled up.”

Correction: A previous version of this article gave the incorrect address for the Congress Street development.