WESTBROOK — Among the partially paved roads and heavy equipment crowded on a dirt patch of former farmland on Spring Street are dozens of new homes in various states of completion, from still being framed out to already having patio furniture.

More than 20 others under contract don’t even have foundations yet.

Blue Spruce Farm, the city’s second biggest subdivision in history, was approved last spring when developer Bill Risbara said he expected to build out the 183-unit housing project in three to five years.

Homes and apartments are under construction at the 183-unit Blue Spruce Farm, the second biggest subdivision in Westbrook's history. Last spring, the developer expected to build out the site in three to five years; less than a year later, all but six of the 53 single-family house lots and most of the apartments have been spoken for.

Blue Spruce Farm, the second biggest subdivision in Westbrook’s history.

Less than a year later, all but six of the 53 single-family house lots have been spoken for, as have more than 50 apartments, most of which haven’t been built yet.

Meanwhile, 46 condominiums going up across town – a development that would normally seem big – are selling just as quickly.

Between the beginning of January and the end of March, the city of Westbrook awarded 29 building permits for single-family homes and condos, more than it had during the first quarter of the year in at least a decade.

The total number of housing starts for about a dozen towns and cities in the Portland area are, for the first time, on track to match the level of activity before the housing market collapsed in 2008.

Single-family building permits issued in Portland and its suburbs

January 2015 – March 2016

But the recession left some wreckage in its wake. The industry’s laborers, who had to find work elsewhere during the downturn, haven’t returned to full force and there’s been little interest in starting a career in the construction trades, causing a shortage of labor for the growing demand.

To compete for the limited number of workers, wages are going up, bringing the cost of building along with them. When interest rates start to rise as well – as economists predict they will – the rapid growth could come to a halt.

But for now, the focus is on building as fast as possible. With Maine families recovering financially and psychologically from the recession, a pent-up demand for buying homes and a penchant for low-maintenance properties has the residential construction industry straining to keep up.

HOME CONSTRUCTION STARTING TO CLIMB

Aside from an uptick in 2010, when federal tax credits were available to homebuyers, housing construction didn’t start to rebound until 2012 and has slowly increased since then.

This year, there were 152 single-family housing starts by the end of March in 14 communities from Saco to Freeport – up more than 50 percent from the same time last year, according to Construction Data New England, though the difference in weather could account for some of the increase.

Westbrook and Scarborough are the hottest places right now for new housing construction, with at least two dozen permits issued in each municipality in the first three months of this year. The two communities were not seeing that level of activity even before the recession hit.

And that doesn’t include new multi-family housing, which is also being built in those communities. Even places like Gorham and Cape Elizabeth have gotten proposals for new apartment buildings in their town centers, something they haven’t seen for decades, if ever. Farther away from the city, former mills in Windham and Saco are slated to become apartment complexes with more than 100 units each.

The biggest boom in new rental housing, however, has been in Portland. Since the 39-unit West End Place, the city’s first market-rate apartment complex in decades, was proposed in 2012, the city has seen plans for more than 800 new rental units, some of which are completed, more that are under construction and the majority that have yet to be built.

CHANGING TASTES DICTATE HOME SALES

The high rents that are inspiring developers to build more apartments are also what’s driving more people to buy homes, said Ed Gardner, president of the Maine Association of Realtors and owner of Ocean Gate Realty in Portland.

Homes in Cumberland County spent less than half as long on the market last year as they did in 2011, according to an analysis by Bean Group Real Estate, and first-quarter sales statewide this year were up nearly 30 percent from last year, according to the Maine Association of Realtors.

Low interest rates, a lack of inventory and a shift in taste away from self-renovations of existing homes and toward low-maintenance, turnkey properties have led new and old homeowners to build, Gardner said.

For Dustin Roma of Windham, a husband and father of four who works from home, it’s the open floor plans and additional bathrooms he prefers about new construction and that are harder to come by in existing homes.

Dustin and Stacia Roma and their four boys – Braedon, 8, Blake, 7, Bentley, 4, and 1-year-old Bryson – have moved into a brand new home in the Sebago Heights subdivision in Windham, near the Raymond town line. The Romas wanted new construction in a neighborhood where their children could play.

Dustin and Stacia Roma and their four boys – Braedon, 8, Blake, 7, Bentley, 4, and 1-year-old Bryson

He built his last house in Windham, too, but about four years ago he and his wife decided they wanted to move their family someplace that felt more like a neighborhood where their young children could play with other kids on the street.

But they knew they wouldn’t get what they wanted for their house then, so they waited.

They had decided they wanted to put it on the market this spring, but last summer, they saw an ad on Craigslist posted by someone looking for a house like theirs. They responded, and it was sold.

In September, they moved into a brand new house in the Sebago Heights subdivision, a 91-home development off Route 302 in Windham near the Raymond town line.

Work on that project began in 2008, but moved slowly for several years. Developer Greg McCormack said the recession forced the plan to change, shrinking the size and lowering the cost of the houses. Over time, they’ve gotten bigger and more expensive.

For the past couple of years, they’ve built about 10 or 12 homes at a time. Now, 17 lots are left. Although only four are under contract, McCormack is confident the rest will be built this construction season.

CONSTRUCTION LABORERS NEEDED

While the home-building boom has generally been good for developers, it has its downsides.

A declining interest in construction trades has resulted in a shortage of workers, which is driving up costs and delaying projects.

“There just isn’t enough people out there to do the amount of work that’s needed,” said Scarborough developer Kerry Anderson.

That sometimes means having to call several subcontractors to find one who’s free, he said. When there’s a job that needs to be completed, that could mean paying more or waiting longer to get it done.

Just a few years ago, Pine State Services, a South Portland plumbing and heating contractor, was going as far as the New Hampshire border and up past Bath for jobs. Now, there’s no need to leave Greater Portland, said Jim Marcisso, a partner in the business.

In the past year, he said, the company has increased its installation staff by 20 percent and is still hiring.

It has had to increase salaries and benefits to compete for new workers, offering more vacation time and greater contributions to health insurance and 401(k) plans.

The company is also training young people who don’t yet have licenses to ensure it will stay staffed.

Because companies are desperate for workers, would-be students in Southern Maine Community College’s construction technology program are choosing to get a paycheck over taking classes, said Ronald Cantor, the college’s president.

He said it wasn’t surprising that enrollment in the program fell during the recession, when construction work was scarce. But it didn’t rebound when the work started coming back.

The number of students in the program fell from 56 in 2011 to 29 in 2015.

Cantor believes it’s because the shortage of labor is enabling more young people in the field to get jobs without needing a degree.

The college has decided to suspend enrollment and work with the industry to figure out how the program could be adjusted to better serve its needs.

If the shortage of labor continues to drive up construction costs and interest rates start to rise, too, the house-building activity could dwindle again.

That’s what Anderson foresees and has adjusted his plans for building out Eastern Village in Scarborough accordingly.

He broke ground on the 200-unit project in 2008 but the recession quickly brought it to a halt. Work didn’t start up again until 2012 and, since then, 55 single-family homes have been built in the development between Route 1 and Black Point Road in the Oak Hill neighborhood.

He plans to double the number of units in the next year but instead of selling them as condominiums, as he planned, he’s decided to rent them.

Regardless of the type of housing, those in the industry are confident that the demand for new residential construction will continue.

Marcisso of Pine State Services said he’s been bidding on projects well into 2017.

And though Risbara still has a few phases left in building out Blue Spruce Farm, he’s already looking beyond that. He recently went under contract to buy another 50 acres right behind it.

 


Comments are not available on this story.