The frames start to go up for duplexes at a workforce housing project by Island Workforce Housing on Deer Isle. Island officials are also looking at ways to ease the local housing crunch. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The walls on a series of duplexes designed for workforce housing in Deer Isle started to go up last month, a sign of progress in the island’s effort to address the ongoing housing crisis.

Island Workforce Housing, a local nonprofit that is dedicated to helping Deer Isle and Stonington maintain their year-round communities, has now completed most of the site work and started framing the five duplexes off Sunset Cross Road.

“Buildings are going up at long last,” said Peter Roth, a member of the nonprofit’s board. “We would love to finish the project by the end of the year.”

The $2.74 million project is one of the first steps towards creating housing specifically for workers and is the first multi-family housing built in Deer Isle in recent memory. And while the addition is welcomed and needed, Deer Isle and Stonington are still desperate for more housing. That’s left some local officials looking for ways to curb the conversion of year-round housing into the more lucrative short-term rentals.

A 2019 study by an economic consulting firm hired by Island Workforce Housing estimated that only 15 percent of the island’s housing stock is year-round rentals. That lack of housing makes it hard for local employers to find workers. If that problem isn’t rectified, it could lead to the hollowing out of the community, officials fear.

The nonprofit has set out to create 30 new dwelling units for the island’s workforce in the next five to seven years. The 10 two-bedroom apartments in the five duplexes, collectively known as the Oliver’s Ridge project, will be year-round rentals for people who make 70 percent to 120 percent of the Hancock County median income.

For a single person, the low end would be about $35,000, Roth said.

The flourish of short-term rentals, which can generate thousands of more dollars in only a few months, has decimated the Deer Isle and Stonington year-round rental market.

“We have a really distorted market because of vacation rentals and the summer crush of people,” said James Fisher, the Deer Isle town manager.

The lack of housing has been cited as a major hurdle for the island’s businesses and pushes many workers to commute from farther and farther away.

To try and stop this outgoing tide, Stonington recently created a short-term rental task force to look at potential ways to regulate the rentals.

The island has long had “rusticators” that would spend the summer renting out homes, said Linda Nelson, the Stonington economic development director. But Airbnb and other short-term rental services have changed the way people rent.

Now renters are staying for only a week, or sometimes even a night or two.

“It’s a very different impact on the town’s resources,” she said.

The task force has begun to look at rental ordinances from across Maine to see what actions might fit there. While there have been a lot of regulations in other communities designed to limit short-term rentals, there hasn’t been much to incentivize homeowners to continue year-round leases, she said.

The task force is pondering, among other things, the potential to tack a fee onto short-term rentals and then use that money towards year-round housing.

“It’s really our preference to incentivize and support property owners,” Nelson said.