During the 12-month period that ended last July 1, 17,600 Maine people died. During that same period, there were only 11,300 births.

Basic arithmetic would tell us that means Maine’s population should have shrunk by 6,300, a loss roughly equivalent to a town the size of Fairfield. But that’s not what the U.S. Census Bureau found.

Maine grew by 10,000 people over the previous year, thanks to an influx of newcomers as large as the total population of the city of Waterville. Maine benefited from one of the largest population shifts in the nation, fueled by people who, in this pandemic, decided that they could have a better life here than in the state where they had been living.

This is the long-anticipated good news that has been part of projections for Maine’s future at least since the Brookings Institute published the study “Charting Maine’s Future” 15 years ago.

“As the search for quality places grows in importance, Maine possesses a globally known ‘brand’ built on images of livable communities, stunning scenery, and great recreational opportunities,” the analysts found. “Maine is surprisingly well-positioned for the future.”

As Brookings predicted, people who can work anywhere would choose Maine, and that people are doing just that shows up in our red-hot real estate market, which, during the pandemic, showed increased sales and prices.

New families, buying homes and contributing to their communities, is the good news that people who watch the state’s economy have been waiting for a long time. But it’s not all the good news that we need.

As the birth and death records show, Maine has an aging population, and that means more people retire every year than enter the workforce. Even before the pandemic, Maine employers have struggled to fill open jobs, stifling their ability to grow or even survive.

Last year, a nursing home in Deer Isle closed its doors, not because there was a lack of people who needed their services, but because they could not hire enough staff to fill the jobs. The problem? A lack of affordable housing within commuting distance of the facility.

Knowledge workers who can telecommute from Maine enrich our state, but we also need nursing assistants, home health aides and emergency medical technicians to deliver vital services. Our hospitality sector needs dishwashers, chambermaids, cooks and waitstaff to serve all the people who want to visit.

These businesses cannot operate without employees, which means the state’s economy won’t be able to flourish unless more people who would like to live here can. We cannot afford to lose a Fairfield every year and hope to thrive.

Unlike remote workers, who bring their jobs with them, people who could fill these jobs are unlikely to be able to afford to buy a home or rent an apartment that would be affordable on the wages they can expect to earn, at least not right away.

That’s also true for young people from other states who could earn above median income here, but won’t come because high housing costs scare them. That puts a lid on the state’s ability to provide essential services as well as economic opportunity.

We can’t expect that these problems will just solve themselves. The state needs to play a role in making sure that there is the right kind of housing in the right places that will be affordable to people who would want to move here and fill these necessary jobs.

One opportunity this year comes from a legislative commission, which calls for state standards on local zoning regulations that would allow for denser development. The proposed rules include requiring towns to allow construction of accessory dwelling units, commonly known as in-law apartments, on all existing homes, and allowing multiunit buildings in single-family zones, as long as setback and other requirements are met.

It shouldn’t stop there. The state should work with employers to develop workforce housing, much as mills and factories did a century ago. These projects could include rooming houses for single employees, giving newcomers and young people a place to establish themselves.

And policymakers need to recognize that the labor market is national now and that competing in it requires Maine to have competitive wages as well as a strong safety net, including affordable health care and paid family leave.

Last year’s census figures show that Maine is seen as a desirable place to live. Now we need to make sure it’s an affordable one across the economic spectrum.


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