Debora Keller is executive director of Bath Housing, which owns and manages 185 apartments, most of which have rents below market rates. They include the Anchorage, shown directly behind Keller, and the Moorings across the street. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH — The stories that arose after Bath Housing began renting moderately priced apartments 50 years ago aren’t that different from those told today.

“We leased an apartment up at the Anchorage the other day, and the woman walked in and hugged our property manager, and said, ‘I’m so excited I’m going to be warm this winter,'” Executive Director Debora Keller recalled Nov. 14. “… People work really hard their whole lives, and then they’re at a point in their life where their housing situation isn’t working for them. And we here are able to help them.”

Starting in 1969 with 97 apartments in the Anchorage and Moorings buildings, both on Congress Avenue, “we have slowly worked on … acquiring and rehabilitating properties throughout the community that we then can rent at moderate prices, and make available to people with Housing Choice vouchers, and make sure we have high-quality housing for folks,” Keller said.

Through the voucher program, the federal government assists seniors, the disabled and low-income families with affording safe, sufficient and sanitary housing.

Bath Housing owns and operates 185 apartments, most of which have rents below market rates and subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Along with the Anchorage and Moorings, the organization’s properties include Dike’s Landing on Dike’s Landing Road and Seacliff apartments on Floral Street. Bath Housing also owns and manages several downtown properties and recently purchased the Moses and Columbia Block buildings, which have 10 units that will remain moderately priced.

Bath Housing recently began its Housing Navigation program, through which the organization in part helps people on its two- to four-year waiting list find housing in other communities. That list includes 287 adults 62 and older and 113 younger families and individuals.

“A lot of people’s situation is such that they can’t wait two years,” Keller said.

Of the 25-30 people Bath Housing meets with each month “About 70% … are in what we would call an unstable housing situation,” she said. “They’re sharing space with somebody, they’re sleeping on somebody’s couch, they may be in their car, they may be with a family member but they can’t stay for very long.”

The organization aims to provide safe housing that is in a suitable location, is within the renter’s means, can be maintained and isn’t going away. When Bath Housing meets with clients, “we’re looking at … which of these things isn’t working for you, and then how can we help find the right situation that is going to work for you,” Keller said.

“We’re proud of growing our portfolio in a responsible way, such that we can be a really good landlord in Bath,” she said.

One of the greatest challenges faced by Bath Housing, and Mainers in general, is an aging population that goes hand-in-hand with aging housing stock.

“It’s not a very great combination,” Keller said.

Bath Housing’s Comfortably Home program, which just served its 200th home, offers free services to people who are 60 and older or have a disability, live within a radius of about 15 miles of Bath, own their home or live in a house a family member owns, and meet certain income guidelines. More information is available at bathhousing.org/aging-in-place/comfortably-home

City Councilor Phyllis Bailey, a member of the group Age-Friendly Communities of the Lower Kennebec, praised Bath Housing on Nov. 15 for its innovation: “moving beyond a focus on ‘brick and mortar’ into the Comfortably Home program, helping homeowner older adults make important practical safety modifications that can prevent the crazy accidents we all have at home,” she said.

“Results so far show that Comfortably Home really does help people thrive in their homes,” Bailey added, noting that users have seen a 79% reduction in falls and a 61% drop in hospitalizations and visits to the emergency room, which helps the community “stretch emergency response resources farther and help older adults stay safer – without some injuries.”

Meanwhile, demand for housing has jumped in recent years, thanks to the conversion of the decommissioned Brunswick Naval Air Station to the thriving Brunswick Landing, a growing workforce at Bath Iron Works and a boom in the Portland area that has driven home-seekers up the coast, Keller said.

Unofficial data she’s gleaned from Craigslist has shown a spike in housing costs in nearly four years, with monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment previously at $773 now exceeding $1,000; a two-bedroom unit has risen from $878 to $1,231.

“You have a 37% increase in housing costs, but your incomes are not keeping pace with that,” Keller said. “In addition to the fact that we already had not enough housing stock … of quality, we have escalating prices and incomes that aren’t keeping pace.”

The middle class “has been hollowed out” across the U.S. in the past 50 years, Bailey said.

“While wages have been relatively stagnant for much of the middle class, the costs of medical care, housing and higher education have skyrocketed; and a recession knocked many out of their homes,” she said. “Former corporate benefits like health insurance and pensions have severely eroded. Economic insecurity has expanded for many, including older adults who may be headed into retirement with much more economic vulnerability than expected.”

So the need for housing that isn’t a cost burden remains, 50 years on, Bailey said. And so does the community conversation, Keller said, about “keeping the people (in Bath) that have worked here, grown up here, raised their family here.”

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