Mainers face many challenges at this time of year. As temperatures dip, many are faced with the difficulties of keeping warm in old, drafty houses. Other folks must navigate long commutes on icy or snowy roads and wish they could live a few miles closer to their jobs. And since Maine has the oldest median age of any state in the nation, a growing number of older adults are struggling to maintain safe housing in these winter conditions.

The winter season may highlight our state’s housing challenges, but the struggles that many face are not seasonal. And while the holiday season prompts us to remember and give generously to those living in unstable housing conditions – or maybe with no home at all – what’s really needed is a long-term, statewide approach to address the root of Maine’s housing issues: a housing stock that is simply a poor match to what today’s households need.

Our housing is located too far from service centers, leaving many families and seniors isolated from their jobs, needed services and a supportive community.

Our housing tends to be in poor condition and difficult to heat, lacks handicapped accessibility and sometimes is much larger than what’s needed for today’s smaller households. Statewide, 87,000 households are spending more than 50 percent of their income on housing that doesn’t even meet their needs or lifestyle.

The relatively few affordable-housing complexes being built these days are usually energy-efficient, handicapped-accessible and located close to services. These developments also provide opportunities for community building and socialization, create much-needed construction jobs, boost building supply sales and add property taxes to local communities. These are all huge steps forward to addressing our housing demand-supply imbalance.

Unfortunately, the number of these new developments is woefully inadequate compared to the number of working or retired Maine families and seniors in need. In fact, our affordable-housing production is not even keeping pace with the new demand. For every 100 extremely low-income renter households in Maine, there are only 35 housing units affordable and available to them.

At Avesta Housing, a new senior development built in Kennebunk was fully leased in just weeks. After a couple of years, it has a waiting list of 230 households, even though in each year, there will be only three or four vacancies. A family development built in Westbrook also filled up quickly and within a year has a waiting list of 170 households.

In 2014, Avesta Housing had more than 3,000 people come looking for housing, and was only able to provide homes to about one-tenth of them because of incredibly limited availability.

Whether you look at this housing problem as a tragic human care situation that needs resolving, an inefficient system past due for improvement or an economic opportunity to create jobs, it’s clear that something must be done to address Maine’s housing challenges. But what can be done to make large-scale, significant progress? Will consumers or government officials tackle this challenge and advocate for needed change?

We think it’s easy to see the economic drain associated with poor housing and with poorly located housing. It’s also easy to recognize the economic opportunities associated with constructing new housing. But to make significant strides in improving our state’s housing, difficult policy conversations must now occur.

 Should the federal government’s largest investment in housing assistance continue to disproportionately benefit upper-income families through the mortgage interest deduction program, or should some of that investment be used to address the more urgent housing crises faced by our seniors and families living on more modest incomes?

 Should Maine consider supporting the KeepME Home initiative, which helps make senior households appropriate and secure settings to age in place?

 Should municipalities adopt zoning approaches that support smaller lots and encourage growth along water and sewer infrastructures?

 Should our state-local General Assistance program – of which about 80 percent goes toward housing assistance – be expanded or shrunk?

 Can we do more to help domestic violence victims and asylum seekers settle their housing challenges so that they can fill the job openings they are capable of filling?

 Can we put the thousands of unemployed construction workers to work building new housing?

We feel the time for meaningful dialogue around our housing challenges and opportunities is long overdue. We hope our policymakers in Washington, Augusta and local communities will start the difficult conversations now. The thousands of Maine individuals and families grappling with housing issues every day don’t have the luxury of waiting much longer.

— Special to the Press Herald

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