A large majority of voters Tuesday voiced support for Maine seniors by voting in favor of the $15 million affordable senior housing bond. The election outcome was no doubt bolstered by strong bipartisan support in the Legislature and a wide range of organizations throughout the state that endorsed the bond prior to Election Day.
All told, the passage of this bond will create an estimated 225 new affordable homes for Maine’s older adults with homes built in a mix of urban and rural counties in the state. In addition, the bond creates the opportunity for new jobs within the state as each project is likely to require an estimated 150 to 200 Maine workers to build and finish.
There is much to love about this initiative.
As a state with higher-than-average residential energy expenditures, energy efficiency will be a key feature of these units. By keeping energy costs low for residents, more household income can be freed up to purchase other essentials like food and medication. All too often older adults are forced to make the difficult decision between heating their home and eating or taking care of their health. These new units will ease that burden.
The placement of these new units will be an important consideration as we move from celebrating the passage of this bond to its implementation. The bond construction and unit placement will place a priority on developing units near needed services. By building units closer to centralized services and within walking distance to downtowns and businesses, affordable housing units can support both the local economy and older adult independence in the long term.
Placed in the right location, new affordable housing units can facilitate successful aging by reducing transportation costs and providing natural opportunities for older adults to participate in their communities.
The need is growing. According to a report issued by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, many of Maine’s affordable housing units maintain waitlists of hundreds of people with unit turnover rates as low at 10 percent each year, translating to a waitlist time of years rather than months.
For example, in Brunswick alone, 130 older adults are on a waitlist with the Brunswick Housing Authority. Based on experience with past affordable housing developments, it is likely that the new units arising from this bond will fill up quickly.
This is not a problem that will go away anytime soon. With a current housing shortage of nearly 9,000 units needed for older adults, this funding is a drop in the bucket compared with the growing need for affordable housing, and it represents a much smaller slice of the original $65 million bond proposal that would have resulted in 1,000 units.
Clearly, despite the passage of this bond there are still immediate and pressing affordable housing needs that older adults face. What can the rest of Maine’s baby boomers and older adults do to make their housing arrangements more affordable as we build our housing capacity?
The passage of the housing bond is evidence that Mainers are ready to think differently about aging in place. An important first step to addressing housing needs is to reframe how we think about aging in our communities. Stephen Golant, a gerontologist from the University of Florida, urges us to change our thinking from “aging in place” to “aging in the right place.”
The “right place” may not be that old farm house where you raised your children for many years. Instead, focus on aging in a setting that will allow you to pursue the things you love like staying connected with friends and family, and getting out into the community.
Sometimes that does mean downsizing from a home that no longer meets your needs or is creating additional burdens on your time and finances. This is a difficult first step for some to take.
If you are considering downsizing your home, plan ahead and consider elements of your housing that may end up increasing your costs over the long term. For example, housing that is closer to the services and businesses you frequent will reduce your travel time and costs.
Housing that has universal design features which makes your home more accessible will reduce any future upgrades needed if you experience an illness that requires additional accessibility in the home. Universal design features include elements like minimal stairs, wide hallways, wide doorways, lower light switches, etc.
If a move isn’t in your future, there are several steps you can take to make your home more affordable.
First, our colder winters make looking at weatherization and reducing heat loss a key step to lowering home-related costs. There are several programs in the state that are available to low-income seniors including the Central Heating Improvement Program and the Home Energy Assistance Weatherization Program.
Efficiency Maine has grants for heat pumps for income eligible homes, and energy audits are available. To learn more about these programs, call your local Community Action Program or Area Agency on Aging. More tips are available on winter warmth and safety from Eldercare Locator.
Second, home sharing is an option that has become more popular in other areas of the country and one that many overlook. Some older adults home share in the winter months to cut down on expenses, while others make it a longer-term arrangement sharing a home on an ongoing basis. Homesharing not only reduces costs but also provides companionship and another person who can help share the household workload.
As Maine builds the infrastructure needed to support and comfortably — and affordably — house our older adults, the best steps we can take are to continue to support policy changes like the housing bond while personally planning ahead for aging in the right place.
If you are interested in affordable housing locally, consider getting on a waiting list now while making improvements to your current home.
Jennifer Crittenden is the assistant director at the UMaine Center on Aging where she helps to develop and implement research, training and service initiatives that address Maine’s most pressing aging-related issues.