Pedestrians cross the street in downtown Augusta on Wednesday Dec. 29, 2021. The city is among many smaller ones in Maine with barely any apartments available for rent. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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.

You can count the number of available apartments in the Augusta area on one hand.

The situation reflects Maine’s overall housing crisis. Just like home sales, apartment prices have been escalating over the past couple years, and dozens of people are responding to ads within days of a listing.

Some prospective renters are offering to pay a higher rent, creating bidding wars like one seen in Portland earlier this year. Others are even offering a year’s rent up front. The situation illustrates the critical shortage of existing and planned housing in Maine that is keeping away potential workers who can’t find a place to live. Airbnb, Vrbo and other short-term rentals also are eating into the amount of available long-term housing.

“There’s a certain franticness and desperation out there,” said John Lawrence, a rental agent for the Bean Group in Gardiner. “Here we are in rural Maine, and we are having huge, huge issues, like a big city.”

Augusta, Lewiston, Westbrook, Biddeford and Scarborough are among the smaller Maine cities and towns with fewer than five one- and two-bedroom rental apartments available, a July survey by online real estate marketplace Zillow found. reflected similar low vacancies, as did local real estate agents. Some towns, including Rangeley, Bar Harbor and Bethel, had no vacancies on Friday.

Lawrence called the situation “an affordable housing crisis.” He recently received 100 emails for an apartment within a few days of advertising it.

Similarly, an $850 studio apartment in the small city of Hallowell drew interest from 30 people the first day of the ad and rented the same day, said Kim Gleason, owner of McAllister Real Estate in Hallowell.

She has had people offer to pay more per month or pay the entire lease up front and serves many clients who work remotely and who have moved in from out-of-state.

“Folks from Connecticut, Massachusetts or Chicago find our rents to be a deal, so offering $100 more per month isn’t a big thing for them,” she said.

As in the market for homes, apartment shortages have prompted rents to escalate. Lawrence estimates his rents have risen at least 25 percent in the past two years to $1,600 for a two-bedroom unit. Rents have become increasingly unaffordable to many Mainers, especially for younger people carrying high student debt, he said.

In 2020, a median two-bedroom apartment in Maine rented for $1,088, including utilities, according to MaineHousing. A renter would need to make $43,517 per year or $20.92 per hour to afford that.

However, the median renter household income in Maine is $38,231 per year, making that level rent unaffordable for most. Some 55 percent of the 163,185 rental households in Maine would not be able to afford that rent, MaineHousing found.

“I don’t see this ending anytime soon,” Lawrence said. “The problem is one of supply and demand.”