Sarah Smith of Auburn, Maine, paints the wheelchair ramp in front of an apartment building on Knox Street in downtown Lewiston, Maine, on Oct. 21, 2019. Credit: Daryn Slover / Sun Journal via AP

ORONO, Maine — As calls mount for Maine to jumpstart housing production, advocates worry that only a fraction of the new units will be accessible to seniors and Mainers with disabilities.

State officials set aggressive goals for housing production in a landmark study published this month calling for at least 76,000 new homes by 2030. There has been lots of discussion about the need and Maine’s wide affordability crisis, but less among policymakers on how to ensure enough are accessible.

Only 5 percent of new multi-family housing construction in Maine has to meet accessibility standards that would accommodate those with mobility issues, according to federal data. That could be a bigger problem as the nation’s oldest state ages further in the coming years.

“I’m not sure that conversation is happening enough,” Noël Bonam, director of the Maine AARP, said at a senior housing conference at the University of Maine in Orono on Monday. “Housing remains a really significantly huge issue for us.”

Maine has the oldest population in the nation with a median age of 44.8 years. The senior population here will rise by more than a third by 2030 to just shy of 400,000 people, according to projections from the state economist. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 12 percent of Maine adults have a mobility disability.

For housing developments and apartments subsidized by MaineHousing programs, the number of accessible units as a percentage of total units is far greater than the 5 percent statewide, said Scott Thistle, a spokesperson for the agency. But for single-family home construction, there is not typically an accessibility requirement. Half of senior households will be single-occupancy by 2035, Rep. Maggie O’Neil, D-Saco, noted at the Monday conference.

It will largely fall to local planning boards to make sure developers proposing new housing construction make provisions for those with mobility issues, accessibility advocates said. Others wondered if state legislators could mandate more accessible housing be developed, although that could conflict with the state’s long history of local control over housing.

“We need something to force developers to change, or incentives, because right now they’re just doing the minimum,” Jill Johanning, a Portland-based architect with Alpha One, said. “If we have a 20-unit development, one apartment will be accessible. Maybe two.”

Accessibility standards include wheelchair, cane, walker or stroller access to all parts of the building and to appliances like light switches, thermostats or cabinets and reinforcements in bathroom walls for grab bars and handrails, among other state-sanctioned requirements.

Developers usually don’t build more than 5 percent of their units as accessible to those with mobility issues, Johanning said. A lack of creativity and increased costs are behind that, but advocates said that idea is misplaced.

“To make [a home] accessible is a 0 to 5 percent increase in construction costs. It is far greater than that to retrofit that unit after the fact,” Jean Saunders, the director of Age Friendly Saco, said.

When designing a housing project, Saunders said choices like adding a first-floor bathroom,  installing levers for door handles instead of knobs, or choosing to construct a sloped walkway instead of steps can cost “pennies.”

Keeping those with mobility issues in mind from conception might require creative thinking, but it will save money in the long term and prevent those living on a fixed income from trying to come up with it in decades’ time.

Saunders said she has heard of Saco residents who have to call the fire department every time they come in or out of their house because they can’t afford a ramp.

“We’re pushing for a lot of new development; we’ve got to make sure it’s right,” Johanning said.

Zara Norman joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after a year reporting for the Morning Sentinel. She lives in Waterville and graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2022.