BRUNSWICK — House Speaker Mark Eves wants the state to borrow $65 million to help build 1,000 new units of affordable, energy-efficient senior housing so older Mainers can live independently longer.
The proposed general obligation bond, one of three KeepME Home initiatives announced Wednesday by Eves and the Maine Council on Aging, would require lawmakers’ and voters’ approval. And Eves, D-North Berwick, must win re-election in November in order to submit the intended legislation in January.
The proposed borrowing would help address a statewide need for 8,000 additional senior housing units recently tallied by the Maine State Housing Authority. Creekside Village, a 40-unit senior apartment complex where Eves announced the initiatives, has a waiting list of 140 people – a typical number for senior housing across the state.
“We’re putting a spotlight on the need based on what seniors are telling us,” Eves said, adding that he hopes to organize a bipartisan “aging caucus” of legislators to address various challenges facing Maine because it is the oldest state.
Eves also announced legislative proposals to increase property tax credits for seniors who might otherwise lose their homes and boost Medicaid reimbursement rates for home care workers that have been stagnant for a decade.
Many home care agencies have a difficult time finding and keeping employees because they pay about $9 an hour – without benefits or mileage reimbursement – to do important but often difficult work such as helping seniors bathe, go to the bathroom and do household chores. As a result, about 1,200 Mainers were on waiting lists for home care services earlier this year.
Eves had few details about the KeepME Home intiatives, which aim to create aging-friendly communities. He said the initiatives would be fleshed out in the months ahead and submitted to the Legislature early next year as part of a larger package of aging-related bills.
Funding the bills would require legislators to weigh spending priorities, Eves said, noting that helping seniors stay in their homes has proven to be far less expensive than long-term care options such as assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
MaineCare, the state’s form of Medicaid, spent an average $558 per month for each client who received personal care services at home in 2010, compared to $4,150 per month for each nursing home resident during the same year, according to a 2012 analysis by the Muskie School of Public Service.
Eves has been calling attention to Maine’s aging issues for nearly a year. He led several roundtable forums last fall that focused on various challenges facing the state because it has a rapidly aging population. And more than 370 Mainers gathered in the state capital in January for the Maine Summit on Aging.
Maine is the oldest state based on median age (43.5 years) and the second-oldest based on the proportion of people 65 and older (17 percent), according to the U.S. Census. Florida is No. 1 with 18.2 percent.
Maine also has the highest proportion of baby boomers – 29 percent of its 1.3 million residents were born in the period from 1946 to 1964. By 2030, more than 25 percent of Mainers will be 65 or older.
An ongoing Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigative series, The Challenge of Our Age, has uncovered existing shortages in senior housing, home care, long-term care, transportation and other areas that threaten to cripple the state economically and socially as its senior population grows.
“Older Mainers want to remain in their homes and communities as they age, but far too many are struggling to find housing and access the services they need,” said Jess Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging and co-chairperson of the Maine Council on Aging.
The proposed $65 million bond issue would allow senior housing developers to access additional state and federal funding incentives, including 4 percent low-income tax credits, said Greg Payne, coordinator of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
“We need a lot more housing, but this bond would be a trigger,” said Payne, who also is development officer at Avesta Housing in Portland.
Eves said the proposed senior housing would be built close to community services and social amenities, to avoid further isolating rural Mainers who already have limited access to transportation and other necessities.
It also would help create thousands of jobs in the construction industry and beyond, which drew an endorsement from the Associated General Contactors of Maine.
“Anytime Mainers invest in construction, the return to the Maine economy is almost immediate,” said Matthew Marks, the association’s CEO. “Increased local investment, local jobs and local taxes for the state of Maine are all positive results that would be created by this initiative.”
Marks said the bond issue, if approved, would generate as much as $100 million in total construction investment across the state and increase Maine’s gross domestic product by at least $272 million, including $88 million in personal earnings. It would create or sustain about 2,280 diverse jobs, including 776 jobs in construction, 368 jobs in businesses that supply the construction projects, and 1,144 jobs in businesses where those workers spend their paychecks.
If the bond proposal wins legislative approval, it would go before the governor. Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who’s up for re-election this fall, has blocked housing-related bond issues in the past. The earliest that Eves’ bond proposal could go to the voters is November 2015.
Eves is being challenged in the November election by Todd Prescott, a Republican who lives in South Berwick. Prescott didn’t respond to a call for comment, but other Republicans issued written statements following Wednesday’s press conference.
House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, noted that Republican legislators supported Medicaid reimbursements for nursing homes, among other efforts, and have worked to lower taxes overall.
“These are tough issues, and require that we all roll up our sleeves and work hard to do what is best for Maine families,” Fredette said. “House Republicans are committed to continue working for policy that benefits Maine’s most needy and their families, and I hope political rhetoric won’t get in the way of real accomplishment.”
State Republican Party Chairman Richard Bennett criticized the proposed bond issue as a “plan to put Maine further into debt to fund new government programs for seniors.”
“Democratic politicians are so out of touch that the only ideas they have revolve around borrowing money,” Bennett said. “Maine seniors aren’t asking for handouts. They just want government to keep its promises – something that becomes harder when government goes too far in debt.”
Kelley Bouchard can be reached at 791-6328 or at: