This winter has certainly tested our patience as Mainers — including limits to our tolerance for snow and cold, the tread on our tires and the hardiness of our homes. On days when it’s frigid and blustery, it reminds us just how important “home” is.
For most of us, home is a place of warmth, safety and security — a refuge from the storm. Unfortunately, for all too many older Mainers, home is a place full of hazards and a source of worry and burden. Many older adults live their lives fearful of slipping and falling inside and outside the home, experiencing an accident or sustaining a disabling injury while clearing snow. Then there are the financial hardships of winter. Living on a fixed income means any unexpected costs, such as paying for snow removal, extra oil, home repairs and other winter-related expenses, take away from money that otherwise would be spent on food, medications and other necessities.
Not only is the cost of housing a high priority for older Mainers but the availability of suitable housing is an additional issue of concern that deserves our attention. There are critical gaps in housing available to older adults in the U.S. The result is that too much of the housing stock in which older adults reside fails to meet their needs in terms of affordability and accessibility and satisfying the personal support needs that surface as they age. This housing crunch is already upon us here in Maine. A recent report released by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition points out that 37 percent of Maine’s older adults are considered low-income and more than 27 percent have at least one disabling condition. Maine’s housing stock is the eighth oldest in the nation. A little over half of Maine’s older adults spend more than a third of their household income on housing.
These harsh realities, compounded by an already constrained rental market, create a situation where many older adults are without affordable and safe housing options. In 2012 alone, there was a projected shortage of 9,000 affordable rental units; this figure will increase to 15,000 units in the next seven years if we do not take action. According to recent figures released by Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine State Housing Authority is creating 250 to 300 affordable units per year. While this certainly supports our older residents, this rate of unit development is not enough to address the housing gap.
One opportunity is on the horizon for Maine. Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves is spearheading the Keep ME Home initiative comprising a $65 million housing bond, property tax relief for older adults and reimbursement increases for direct care workers. This initiative represents a big step in the right direction in creating real options for Mainers to remain in their homes and communities as they grow older. The bond, which already has bipartisan support within the Maine Legislature, will leverage private matching funds to create 1,000 affordable housing units for older Mainers in 40 locations throughout the state while providing home improvements and weatherization services for up to 200 older adults. Such an investment will benefit seniors and baby boomers, adults born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers, our future older adults, are less financially secure than previous generations, and they alone will create the need for continued investment in affordable housing. With the highest proportion of baby boomers in the country, Maine cannot afford to turn its back on this issue.
Maine municipalities are taking a look at this issue, too, to find additional options that address our housing challenges. One such approach has been to modify zoning ordinances to allow for accessory apartments, sometimes affectionately called “granny flats,” that would allow seniors to live in apartments attached to the homes of friends or loved ones. This approach offers Maine towns the opportunity to preserve tax revenue while giving residents the option of sharing their homes.
The investment in housing options for older Mainers is a crucial one that we cannot afford to delay. A quick browse through a recent Bangor Daily News survey about our fears around growing older confirms that high on that list is the fear of losing independence and becoming isolated. If we succeed in tackling the housing investment issue, we can provide Mainers with what they want most — a chance to age at home in a home that is safe, accessible and affordable.
Jennifer Crittenden is the assistant director at the University of Maine Center on Aging. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.