Maine is home to one of the oldest populations in the country, matched only by the age of its housing stock. The combination of aging residents, fixed incomes and deteriorating housing stock represents an imminent disaster and economic opportunity. This year’s election winners will be challenged to address the ever-growing problem of housing in Maine.

One-third of all older Mainers rely solely on Social Security income, less than $14,000 per year. Individuals who rely on disability payments earn less. The cost of a new roof can range between $3,000 and $12,000. A worst-case scenario could absorb an entire annual income. Already balancing food, fuel, medications and other costs, a leaky roof could spell financial ruin. The working poor are not prepared for retirement after a lifetime of low wages without benefit of pensions or retirement accounts. They are the farmers, the gas pumpers, those who worked in the woods, worked in chicken and fish processing plants. They never made much back then, and it is crippling them today.

A woman in Hancock County shared a common scenario: She receives roughly $600 per month. She owns her home, so does not worry about rent or mortgage. But her roof has a hole in it. Her options are bleak. She knows she cannot pay off a loan. She can save up the cash, which on $600 per month will be never. In the meantime, damage to the house will intensify as the elements seep in, the wind tears and the structure rots.

There are remedies. Two state agencies provide funds to assist with home repairs. The Office of Community Development has a strong commitment to single-family housing using limited federal funds. The Maine State Housing Authority has the Home Repair Program, but funding is a fraction of what it was years ago.

Investing in home repair programs is win-win. Houses represent the tax base for municipalities. When they deteriorate, their taxable value does, too. All of the funds that are invested in these programs go directly into the local economy: paying contractors, lumber yards and hardware stores. Since many of the recipients are elderly, the programs constitute our only real attempt to help seniors “age in place.” The alternative is all too often long-term care — largely paid for by Medicaid at great expense to the state. Long-term care expenses may be recouped from the sale of the property. But a crumbling house equates to the state left holding the bill, another reason to invest in home repair.

Maine’s community action agencies piloted a program called Keeping Seniors Home, with funding from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. Repairs to homes were designed specifically to avoid nursing home placement. They demonstrated substantial savings for the state by keeping individuals out of costly care. Attempts in the Legislature to fund it beyond the federal grant died, and without support the program collapsed.

Some homes are beyond repair. Mobile homes built before 1976 are classified as substandard, unsafe housing. You know them when you see them. Yet, Mainers live in an estimated 7,500 of them. Considered the “worst of the worst,” the old mobile homes are so badly deteriorated that home repair programs can do little for them. They need to be replaced. The Office of Community Development’s Home Repair Network Program promotes replacement housing, but only replaces one to three mobile homes annually. Maine State Housing Authority had a small grant-funded program aimed at the issue until funds were exhausted several years ago. Its current program is not used for replacement housing.

The way to address the issue is clear. Last November, Mainers approved a $15 million bond to build 225 new housing units for seniors. The original ask was $65 million for 1,000 units. Neither is enough. Neither includes resources for mobile home replacement, and only a very small amount for home repair aimed at the homes of senior citizens. But even that start has been thwarted by Gov. Paul LePage’s failure to release the bonds. Maine’s seniors will be left out in the cold again this winter unless the governor takes action.

John Howard Payne captured the essence of the American dream in his 1823 lyric, “Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.” But as Mainers age on fixed incomes, the quick deterioration of their homes is more than humbling; too often, it is a public health hazard. This year’s candidates should be making plans to insist on the release of housing bond funds. They should design a comprehensive package to ensure safe housing, create good jobs in the trades, stimulate the building supply market, stabilize property values and keep Mainers in their humble homes.

Moira O’Neill of Surry is a nurse and the Democratic candidate for Maine Senate District 7.