The BDN is exploring Maine’s housing crisis from every possible angle, from how it affects home prices, to what it means for Mainers across the state. Read our ongoing coverage here and fill out this form to tell us what you want to know.
Many readers have asked us recently if it has always been this difficult and expensive to buy a home in Maine.
The answer is complex but clear: Buying a home in Maine in 1940 was substantially cheaper than in 2022, even when adjusted for inflation, and the average Mainer could pay their home off faster.
But most also had access to far fewer of the financial resources that Mainers have today, including accumulated wealth within their families, that make it possible to make the investment necessary for a new home. Buying a desirable home was substantially pricier than much of what was available in the Depression-era economy.
At the beginning of 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and Maine, population 847,000, was nearly a year away from sending a generation to fight in World War II. The effects of The Great Depression, which had gone from 1929 to 1939, were still ongoing.
At the time, the median house in Maine was just around $41,000, adjusted for inflation from the original $2,008, around one-tenth of the typical home in Maine today, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Zillow.
That seems really cheap until you consider the average personal income in Maine was just around $11,000 (adjusted for inflation from the original $532), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That same number was $57,000 in 2021 at a time when the median housing value for a home in Maine was $310,000 in the middle of that year.
It all means the average person could buy a home in 1940 with around 3.7 years of annual salary. Last year, that number was 5.4 years.
Many people in Maine still needed to take out mortgages to buy a home, a process the federal government had built up in the wake of the Great Depression during the 1930s. That included the creation of the Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae, expanding the number of people who could take out a mortgage.
These innovations helped create the modern American housing market, though banks could still legally discriminate against women, including requiring that they not be able to get a mortgage without a male co-signer, until federal legislation in 1974.
By 1940, most mortgages in Maine were generally taken out from local banks, said state historian Earle Shettleworth Jr., a process that isn’t substantially different from today.
While the numbers can make it appear that it was far easier to buy a home, they should also be viewed in the context of the depression, Shettleworth noted, which seriously lowered property values across Maine.
In a depressed market, many were kicked out of their homes for failure to pay mortgages or taxes. He remembered speaking with Myrtle Gascoigne, a real estate agent at the time, who said it was “amazing” how many rural farmhouses were on the market in the 1930s.
The drive to maintain savings loomed heavy in people’s minds at the time, Shettleworth said, with more of a feeling that you should not buy or build a home until you can fully pay for it, which was not as present in the post-war housing boom.
Shettleworth’s own parents began building their home in Portland in 1940 and finished it shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It cost $16,000, around $328,000 adjusted for inflation — his parents didn’t need to take out a mortgage or borrow any money.
By 1940, 30 percent of non-farm homeowners in Maine reported having a mortgage, or around 25,000 people. That rate was much higher in urban areas at 40 percent compared with rural ones at 24 percent but was still lower than the 45 percent across the rest of the United States.
At the time, the state was decidedly rural, with one-fifth of Mainers living on farms. The only counties where a majority of the population lived in urban areas were Androscoggin, Cumberland, Kennebec and Sagadahoc. The population was also less educated. Only 3 percent of Mainers had gone to college for four years or more.
Fewer Mainers actually owned their own homes, however, with 45 percent of occupied homes holding tenants compared with around 27 percent today, a rate that was far above the rest of the U.S. population. That number was especially high in urban areas, with rural areas having higher rates of owner-occupied housing on both farm and non-farm properties.
Almost all Mainers, some 99.7 percent, were white at the time, though the state did have some Black and Native American residents.
Non-white Mainers had a higher rate of home ownership than white ones (59 percent versus 51 percent). However, their likelihood of having a mortgage was almost half as much with housing discrimination fairly widespread.
Clarence Roberts, a Black man who later served as town council chair in Old Orchard Beach, reported an owner refusing to sell him a home in Buxton because of his race in the 1940s. The owner told Roberts he feared negative reaction from the community.
In other ways, the state wasn’t so different. For example, Portland had a similar number of people (74,000 compared with 68,000 today), as did Lewiston (39,000 compared with 37,000 today) and Bangor (30,000 compared with 32,000).
However, many of the communities across Southern Maine that have seen significant population growth in recent years were still very small. Scarborough, now a city of more than 22,000, had fewer than 3,000 at the time.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the Maine counties where a majority of the population lived in urban areas in 1940.