People mingle at the grand opening celebration for a 37-unit affordable housing project by nonprofit developer Avesta Housing in Portland's West End on June 28, 2018. Credit: CBS 13

Maine needs 25,000 more affordable homes, but even when it builds new housing, the elderly and others who need it most cannot afford it, the head of an affordable housing agency said on Wednesday.

Dana Totman, the outgoing president of the nonprofit Avesta Housing, recalls a widower living in a farmhouse with a leaky roof and frozen pipes who remained too stubborn to move out.

When he finally moved into assisted living, “he cleaned up, started putting in his teeth and started eating again.” He died “with complete dignity” a year later.

“That widower was my father,” Totman said.

Maine needs more affordable housing now than at any other point in Avesta’s 50-year history, he said. The pandemic and supply chain issues have made affordable housing less available in the past year. The state’s legislative housing commission proposed an aggressive housing agenda in a  draft report last December that included eliminating single-family zoning. Local groups like the Maine Municipal Association have opposed state-level housing pushes, but Totman said state involvement might be necessary to push zoning and other changes.

He said the priorities for affordable housing should be on the state’s aging population, homelessness, influx of immigrants and first-time homebuyers struggling with affordability, Totman said.

The state built 200 to 300 new affordable units annually from 2015 to 2020, and bumped that up to 454 units in 2021. He said that progress is “dismal at best” in the face of the 25,000 units that are needed.

Federal changes in housing programs cut the number of units built by half since the 1980s and the ones being built get a low-income tax credit that isn’t affordable to people with an annual income of $15,000, he said.

There also is a mismatch between the available housing and what is needed. Housing may be in the wrong location, the wrong size or in poor condition, leaving Mainers in need without decent shelter and a place to call home.

One of the biggest issues Avesta and other supporters of affordable housing face is the lack of urgency by all levels of government to fix what he calls “an urgent problem.”

Totman offered 10 recommendations that he hopes will go to the Legislature on how to address affordable housing.

They include setting production goals to build at least 1,000 affordable rental homes in Maine per year and measuring how those goals are met. Maine also needs to create rental opportunities for the lowest income people by combining vouchers and rent subsidies so they can afford to live in the new units being produced. The affordable housing units need to have services that can help people with special needs.

He also recommended minimizing the loss of housing to Airbnbs and other short-term rentals through regulation or increasing fees and changing zoning to create denser dwellings while minimizing single-family homes.

Totman recommended developing programs for first-time homebuyers with the priority on renters currently living in affordable housing. He also would like to use Medicaid and other resources to produce more assisted-living developments.

He would like to see a shelter and welcome facility for immigrants and new homeless shelters. Totman also wants to attract financial support from philanthropists, which have tended to contribute to colleges and museums rather than affordable housing. He also wants to make affordable homes a priority to all levels of government.

He realizes not everyone wants affordable housing in their community. In November developers canceled a project that would have brought 37 new affordable housing units to a project near Cape Elizabeth’s town center. They gave up after a group opposing the project successfully petitioned to send the issue to a public referendum. The developers said it was no longer viable to move forward in the wake of the referendum.

Totman said everyone deserves safe housing.

“I think we know what needs to be done,” he said. “Fifty years ago, affordable housing really took off and we started producing. It’s time to do it again.”