Acadia National Park workers like Emily Nelson are struggling to find affordable housing in Maine's increasingly tight market.
Emily Nelson, 23, struggled to find an affordable year-round rental on Mount Desert Island when she took a job as a permanent employee at Acadia National Park. Credit: Nicole Ogrysko / Maine Public

Emily Nelson knew what she was up against when she applied for a permanent job at Acadia National Park earlier this spring. Park officials warned her of the housing challenges as soon as she began interviewing for the position.

When the 23-year-old got hired, she scoured real estate listings, contacted property owners directly and enlisted the help of her parents and her new supervisor at the park.

She found plenty of weekly vacation listings and summer rentals, but Nelson said most were way out of her price range.

“I remember being frustrated, because so many of these could be year-round rentals,” she said.

Eventually, Nelson posted a plea for help on a Facebook page dedicated to helping renters and landlords find year-round housing or tenants on Mount Desert Island.

The comments, Nelson said, were discouraging.

“After I had posted a lot of people were like, ‘You won’t find anything. I don’t know why you’re trying to move here,’” she said. “It’s so rude. I got a job, and it’s in my field, and it’s something that I’ve wanted for a really long time. And it’s not my fault that there’s no housing and I want to move there for this job.”

It didn’t help that Nelson was starting her job at the park around the same time that seasonal workers, including temporary Acadia employees, were flocking to the area to work for the summer.

Acadia National Park typically hires around 150 seasonal workers, but this summer it has only 120, Superintendent Kevin Schneider said.

“Part of that is attributable to housing,” he said. “We simply do not have enough housing for everybody who comes to work for us in the summer.”

The park can house about 70 seasonal workers each summer. The rest are on their own, and many end up declining a seasonal job offer because they can’t find a place to live, Schneider said.

The park won’t have any lifeguards on Sand Beach or Echo Lake this year. And Schneider said he’s missing about a dozen fee collectors, as well as a few trail crew members and park interpreters who answer questions from the public.

“When we don’t have enough people it just stresses the system, if you will,” Schneider said. “It makes it more difficult for those who are here because they’re really tasked with trying to make up that slack, and in some ways we can’t make up the slack.”

A lack of affordable housing has become a problem for the entire region, said David MacDonald, the former president of Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit whose mission it is to preserve, protect and promote the park.

“The word ‘crisis’ is not putting it too strongly,” he said.

MacDonald ran Friends of Acadia for 10 years and recently stepped down, but he’s staying on to help the organization with a task force that’s dedicated to solving the park’s housing challenges.

“It has really emerged as a bottleneck, and something that’s holding us back and holding the park back,” he said.

And while many communities in Maine are experiencing similar challenges with a lack of affordable housing and the rise of short-term vacation rentals, Acadia National Park has proven to be a particularly popular attraction for the region.

More than 4 million people visited Acadia last year, a record for the park.

“The park is so central to everything else that goes on here, that it becomes particularly acute if the park itself can’t hire the people to run the park, which is the attraction and the magnet for all of the other businesses,” MacDonald said.

What the park really needs, he added, is more federal funding and action. Proposed legislation from U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins of Maine would help launch one workforce housing project.

The park has drawn up plans for projects, but it just doesn’t have funding to make them happen. Funding has remained relatively flat for Acadia for the last several years, despite a 70 percent increase in visitation over the last decade.

Instead, MacDonald said it’ll take the entire community to resolve housing challenges on Mount Desert Island, which affect nearly every local employer.

Bar Harbor Town Manager Kevin Sutherland agreed. He moved to the area from Saco and took the town manager job in January, and like most newcomers, he has struggled to find an affordable home for his family. He brought the problem to the Town Council.

“I provided them a list of the available housing on the market today, and it was everything,” Sutherland said. “It was a home for around $8 million all the way down to one that was worth $600,000 on the market, but it needed $200,000 worth of work. And there were only seven homes on there.”

He and his family have been in a month-to-month rental in Hulls Cove. After months of searching, Sutherland said he recently closed on a home in Trenton.

Housing, he said, is the top priority for Bar Harbor. And through an ongoing comprehensive planning effort and eventual zoning changes, Sutherland said he’s hopeful the town can clear the way for denser neighborhoods with more duplexes and apartment-style buildings.

In the meantime, MacDonald said Friends of Acadia has found some short-term solutions. It successfully helped all 15 of its own seasonal workers find housing this summer, partly by appealing to members of the community.

“We don’t want to pass any judgment on people who are doing weekly rentals,” MacDonald said. “I know a lot of people who are doing it, my contemporaries, my friends. I get it. A lot of people are doing it so they can pay their mortgage to live here year-round.”

MacDonald said three or four landowners agreed to turn their weekly vacation rentals into block employee housing this summer, and Friends of Acadia has done the same kind of networking for park employees as well. It’s also providing Acadia with some extra funding to renovate its own stock of employee housing, which could provide beds for a few more seasonal workers next summer.

But Schneider said he worries about the impact that the housing crunch will have on his permanent workforce in the future.

Half of the park’s permanent employees live off the island, and Schneider said he has enough staff who can, for example, respond quickly to an emergency at the park.

“But I am concerned for the future as those employees retire, will the people who come in behind them be able to afford to live here on Mount Desert Island, or will we need to provide housing for those individuals?” he said.

Nelson is among the park staff who lives off the island. It took about five weeks of searching, but she eventually found a small apartment outside Ellsworth. If the traffic isn’t bad, she has a 45-minute commute to the park.

“I would like something a little bit closer, especially with the price of gas,” Nelson said. “But I also feel fortunate that I have some place that is year-round. I won’t have to find something in the winter, so there’s pros and cons.”

She still occasionally looks at listings, she said, on the off chance she can find something closer to the park.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.