In the first four months of this year, Avesta Housing received more than 400 requests for affordable senior housing. It was able to fulfill just 38 of them.
Lawmakers have an opportunity — for a second time — to ease this problem. In doing so, they would also be following the clear directions they were given by Maine people who approved a $15 million bond to build more affordable senior housing in 2015. Gov. Paul LePage has refused to issue these voter-approved bonds.
The governor has forced lawmakers to face the difficult and unusual decision of changing state law in order to go around him. With a growing waiting list of seniors seeking safe, affordable housing in Maine, they must vote for a new system to issue bonds so they can overcome the governor’s senseless recalcitrance.
“I think the principle here is pretty simple: When Maine voters have approved state borrowing at the ballot box, no one — including a governor — should have the right to veto that decision,” Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, told the Appropriations Committee in April when he testified in favor of LD 832, a bill he sponsored to free up voter-approved bonds from the governor’s grip. The bill easily passed the House and Senate, but LePage vetoed it last week. There were not enough favorable votes in the House in May to overcome the veto.
The Senate overrode LePage’s veto Wednesday. The bill’s fate now rests with Republican lawmakers in the House. All but seven House Republicans voted against allowing the housing bonds to be issued. Six Republicans missed the vote. These lawmakers must now decide whether they’ll remain in lockstep with the governor based on technical arguments or whether they will join voters who see the critical need to building more affordable housing to ease the waitlists that keep seniors in unsafe housing or housing they struggle to afford.
Nearly 10,000 Maine senior households are on waiting lists for affordable housing, according to a recent survey by the Maine Real Estate Managers Association. That’s an increase of nearly 1,000 since last year’s survey. The shortage is projected to grow to 15,000 units by 2022.
Recognizing this need, the senior housing bond won the approval of 69 percent of Maine voters in 2015. The bond money would be matched by $22.6 million in private and other funds, allowing the construction of 200 new senior housing units and the weatherization of more than 100 homes for low-income seniors.
LePage began criticizing the housing bond the day after voters approved it. He has given a variety of reasons for not issuing the bonds — ranging from the impact on the state’s credit rating to his desire to change the configuration of the bond package — since voters approved it.
He has also said he opposed the borrowing because builders were getting rich by building the affordable housing units. But the amount of money a developer can make from such projects is capped at a level set by MaineHousing’s governor-appointed board of directors. If developers got rich building affordable housing for seniors, they’d already be building it without the need for state bond money to incentivize the projects.
LePage said he would not issue the bonds as long as he is governor.
So this is the last chance for Republican lawmakers to show leadership on this issue. They can show they understand the plight of Maine seniors, many of whom die while awaiting a safe, affordable apartment. They can show they care by putting the needs of seniors above ideology and partisanship.