Counting Empty Houses Come Winter

Affordable housing finds a foothold on Maine’s islands.


Tiffany Tate knows the frustration of looking for affordable housing on an island where all real estate is expensive and rentals are hard to come by. She was raised in Washington County, but Tate’s family originally hails from Great Cranberry Isle; her grandfather built boats and was the Beal part of Beal and Bunker, which still runs the mailboat and ferry service.

After a complicated time living Downeast, including dozens of moves, Tate came to Great Cranberry in mid-2014 as a single mother, along with her five-year-old son, John. She was looking for more stability and a sense of community. And she was happy to find an islander willing to rent a summer cottage to her at far below the market rate. But when the cold weather arrived in the fall, Tate realized she had no options for winter housing.

“I was calling people, literally knocking on doors, asking, ‘Would it be possible to rent this house for the winter?’ It was a straight ‘Nope,’ or ‘Yep, it’s winterized, but we’re not renting it,’ or, ‘Nope, not renting it,’ ” she said.

“It’s their house, and of course that’s their right. But if you walk up the road in the wintertime, you’ll just see empty house, empty house. Someone home. Then empty house, empty house, empty house.”

If you walk up the road in the wintertime, you’ll just see empty house, empty house. Someone home. Then empty house, empty house, empty house . . .

This is the paradox of living year-round on an island in Maine: Housing is everywhere, but very few homes are affordable, or available to year-round residents.

Summer residents own much of island property; they pay taxes, put money into the local economy, and contribute in many more intangible ways. But the popularity of islands as sites for second homes has also translated into property values out of step with Maine’s economy. Combine that with geographic isolation and the high cost of living, and it’s increasingly hard for locals and young families to be part of island communities. Watching year-round populations fall, yet eager to remain viable communities, places like Great Cranberry are searching for ways to attract permanent residents, and affordable housing is always at the top of the list.

It was this context that gave shape to the Cranberry Isles Realty Trust, or CIRT. Founded in the late 1990s, the organization has grown from a few acres of donated land to five houses—four on Great Cranberry, and one on Islesford (Little Cranberry)—with a board, a general manager, a caretaker, and a bookeeper. It was CIRT that eventually rented a winterized place to Tiffany Tate. For year-round residents on many of Maine’s islands, similar organizations may be their best shot at preserving a way of life.


The night before I visited Great Cranberry, coastal Maine got its first true snowstorm of the season, knocking out power all along the coast, including on Great Cranberry. In the morning the ground was covered in a slick of ice, and the air had turned both damp and biting; with the exception of a woman in pink ballet flats and a thin blazer, everyone on the mailboat wore hooded sweatshirts, insulated canvas jackets, and winter boots. A baker from Bar Harbor sat across from me, bundled up to visit her sister and brother-in-law, who is a builder and caretaker.

She estimated that he looked after a total of 30 houses, and as we approached the dock, she began to point them out: neat, traditional places with steep roofs, their sides mostly finished in gray shingles or white clapboard.

“That one, that one. That one, too. Pretty much all of those.” Her arm made a broad arc to indicate a whole line of homes along the shore.

I waited at the dock for a few minutes, and soon 32-year-old Tiffany Tate pulled up in a creaking Trans Am. The car was a shimmery robin’s egg blue, and it was a few years older than she. Its passenger door was jammed shut. Tate jumped out. She seemed sturdy and somewhat delicate, too, with cropped brown hair and a careful smile.

Gesturing to me to climb across the driver’s seat, she swept away clothes, shards of tree bark, and a red backpack. Three days earlier, Tate had moved into one of the rent-controlled houses that CIRT had agreed to rent to her, and was still using the car to haul her belongings there, including multiple loads of firewood, which she’d been piling into the passenger seat and balancing on the hood of the car.

In her living room, we sat in front of a woodstove on stools and drank coffee with hazelnut creamer. Along with other staples like toilet paper, pasta, and rice, she orders the coffee and creamers from Walmart or Amazon and has them shipped to the town dock. Any perishables require a trip to Southwest Harbor, or higher prices at the island store.

The room was full of the thin, silvery light of early winter. Other than us, the stove, the stools, her clothes, and a few groceries scattered in the kitchen, the place was largely empty; her son was with his dad on Islesford—he and Tate have a friendly relationship, and share custody—and all the furniture for this house was still stored in its basement. Tate said she’d planned to move the pieces upstairs bit by bit. She’d been doing a lot of sitting, just trying to get used to being on her own in the empty space.

“I’m not used to being alone, or houses that are quiet,” she said. “CIRT is really a godsend. It’s making it possible for my child to have a normal life.”

When we spoke about where she’s from, she described an absent father, her mother’s problems with addiction, and a tangled list of hard living situations. She also talked about how important her son is to her, the raw beauty of the Maine coast, a sense of gratitude for having learned the skills she’s built a life out of, like blueberry raking, wreath making, periwinkle collecting, clamming, scalloping, hunting, music, art, and writing—and the feeling that she’s finally found a home.

“I wasn’t raised here, but it’s where my heart is; I guess that’s the best way to put it. Here I’m close to my son, and I’m close to my family’s roots. My mother’s buried in the cemetery up the street. My grandfather’s buried on the island. That’s what it’s about for me.”

“I wasn’t raised here, but it’s where my heart is; I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
young girl hugging chicken

Tate stood, turned her back to me, and lifted her shirt to show a giant phoenix tattooed across her shoulders.

“I got this when I moved away from Washington County,” she said, pulling down her shirt and returning to her stool. “It’s about rebirth. Growing stronger, and all of that.”

She grinned.

“Of course, it’s also the Trans Am symbol. I mean, come on.”

We finished our coffee and bundled up for the snow. When I asked Tate for directions to the next interview, she pointed at the house next door, then drove off for another load of belongings, the back end of the Trans Am fishtailing gracefully across the ice.


Phil Whitney lives in his grandparents’ old house, which he inherited and moved into with his wife, Karin, after decades of working overseas for the state department. It was clear he’d been eager to return, and that he’s stayed busy ever since. Sitting in his cozy living room, surrounded by blankets and family photos, Whitney talked about being part of many of the island’s organizations, including CIRT, the logic behind making affordable housing available—and why islands like Great Cranberry truly need the young families living in the CIRT houses.

“In the 1980s, prices along the coast of Maine skyrocketed, and never really looked back,” he said. “So if islands were going to avoid becoming entirely summer residences, something had to be done to provide year-round housing for average people. Now it’s grown into the idea that we should be looking for people who not only need affordable housing, but can also bring useful skills to the island. Especially families with school-aged kids.”

According to Whitney, any islander knows that a thriving school is key to attracting and keeping families as year-round residents. Although the school on Great Cranberry “ran out” of kids in 2000, when I visited, eight school-aged children were living on-island—and five of them were in CIRT houses. There are plans to reopen the school, and residents approved a $450,000 budget for repairs and remodeling.

Around noon, Karin Whitney emerged from the kitchen with fried-egg sandwiches cooked atop a woodstove, then disappeared to deal with a water issue caused by the power outage.

Phil Whitney wants to see Great Cranberry grow, but says island life isn’t for everyone.

“Some people just aren’t cut out to be surrounded by water and to live with just fifty or sixty other people all winter. Let’s put it that way.”

During the summer, Whitney helps run a shuttle that brings people from one end of the island to the other. He speaks to hundreds of day-trippers, and says that when they come in July and August, many of them claim that it’s a paradise, and that they’d love to live on-island all year. So he sits and talks with them some more.

“I say, ‘Do you realize what it’s like in January? When you have no generator and the power goes out? Have you thought of what you’ll do for work here?’ ” He smiles. “When I get through, the percentage of people who want to live out here has narrowed considerably.”

Even those who end up happy on the island waver. When Jen Walls and her husband, Ben, decided to move into another one of the CIRT houses, Jen felt like backing out at the last minute.

“I went over to my girlfriend’s house the day before; I said ‘Call Craigslist, call my family, call my friends. Find me something else. Anything!’ ” she told me. “We didn’t have any money saved. We just had no idea what we were heading into.”

Walls has curly dark hair and wears glasses, and the day we met, she was bundled up in a peacoat, since the power was out. Though Ben has family in Otter Creek, near Bar Harbor, they’d been raising their three daughters in Southern Maine, and were eager for a change. Rent was too high, and their neighborhood in Biddeford felt so unsafe that their oldest daughter, Marla, didn’t like to leave the house.

“There was a lot of drug use and crime. Just in our building there was a rape, a burglary, and two meth labs. Every morning we’d wake up and just smell pot and cigarettes,” said Walls.

So she and Ben, who’d been working as a cook, went on Craigslist, entered in their maximum rent—$800—and their minimum number of bedrooms—three—and found the CIRT listing, at $750 for a three-bedroom home.

“Everywhere else, it was so hard to find housing,” she said. “I’d call, and they’d say, ‘How many in your family? . . . Oh, our septic can’t handle five people.’ Or, ‘The space isn’t big enough for five people.’ But when we looked at this place, [the people at CIRT] were like, ‘Oh, you have kids.’ And they were excited.”

A few weeks later, the Walls family decided to move. Now that they’re on-island, Ben does carpentry, and is studying to be an EMT; Jen, who’s trained as a nurse, has been helping out with elderly residents and doing books for the local boatyard, while also training to be registered as an accountant, cleaning houses, and working with the historical society. And all three girls are at the school on nearby Islesford, and say they love island life—even thirteen-year-old Marla, who in spite of not liking their old neighborhood, had close friends she didn’t want to leave behind.

family posing with cats and dog
“I say, ‘Do you realize what it’s like in January? When you have no generator and the power goes out? Have you thought of what you’ll do for work here?’”

“On the way to visit the island, she said she wasn’t coming if we moved out. But on the way back, she was like, ‘We are definitely moving there!,’ ” said her mother.

Everyone I spoke with told me it’s common to have a strong reaction to the island. Ingrid Gaither works at the local store, and first came out after seeing an ad in The Working Waterfront while she and her husband Ric were exploring Maine. They immediately fell in love with the island, yet they moved back to North Carolina after two years.

“It was what we thought it was—but not always easy,” Gaither remembered. She was wearing a kerchief over her hair, and heating water in a kettle to wash dishes at the store while Ric chatted with another customer over coffee, then went to collect their son.

As far as Phil Whitney was concerned, what mattered was that the Gaithers returned.

“They called me up three or four years ago, interested in coming back,” said Whitney. “The CIRT houses were occupied; a full year passed, and finally I said, ‘Why don’t you come up here; I’ll let you stay in one of my houses on Southwest Harbor, you pay utilities. It’ll give you a foothold.’”

They came up on New Year’s Day, immediately got jobs on Great Cranberry, and eventually transitioned to living on the island when a CIRT house became available.

Yet finding an affordable rental is just one part of the challenge facing anyone who really wants to live on an island. What happens after working-class, year-round residents rent for a few years, and decide they want to put down roots and own a home?

“To buy property, we have to really save,” says Gaither. “But we also have to coincide with someone selling their place—someone who specifically wants a year-round resident in there. We don’t ask for anything free, but we just can’t afford to buy in the market for summer people.”

According to Whitney, CIRT also wants to offer support to year-round residents on this front, too. He says the organization has started to consider selling CIRT houses to renters, with contracts that say the new owners won’t resell within a certain amount of time, and that when they do, they must keep the properties affordable, or simply sell them back to CIRT. He also mentioned that CIRT had started to try brokering sales by residents who want to see the island thrive and are willing to sell to year-round residents who don’t earn a lot of money at a price they can still afford.

Ownership is a particular concern for Tiffany Tate, who, like many Mainers, makes her living by piecing together income from different jobs, and knows it will be hard to get a loan.

“Right now, the way I work, it’s a blessing and a curse, because the bank looks at you and says, ‘Nope, you can’t show us a steady income. You keep changing jobs. Sorry.’ You get laughed at. It’s kind of unrealistic to imagine that I could own something out here, unless someone would directly sell me a piece of property.”

Tate was planning to focus on the immediate future. “It’s just time to work, to try to save up money,” she said. “And hopefully, someday, get a place.”

Phil Whitney also hopes that young islanders like Tate and Ben and Jen Walls will eventually have an opportunity to own property, and to stay on the island.

“If we can just keep finding housing and land opportunities for younger people with the skills to be happy here, I think we can save this island.”

He, like Tate, has spent a lot of time walking the island, contemplating the future of Great Cranberry.

“Last winter we had forty-eight people here; this year I think we’ll be up to fifty-eight,” he said. “I know, because all last winter I would walk the roads at night, and count the lights on.”

Annie Murphy is a journalist and radio producer. Her stories are published by The Atlantic, Harper’s, National Public Radio, and others. She runs a media studio called Ruraliste.