The only unacceptable resolution to Maine’s senior housing stalemate is inaction

A year ago, Maine voters overwhelmingly approved a $15 million bond to help pay for construction of low-income housing for Maine seniors. One year later, a growing number of Maine seniors are on waiting lists for affordable housing as Gov. Paul LePage refuses to authorize the bond’s sale.

With LePage refusing to budge, backers of the funding are wisely looking at other options — including legislation to bypass the need for action from the governor or another bond whose proceeds would be ready to be spent after LePage leaves office in 2019. Either way, resolving the current stalemate so needed affordable senior housing can be built should be a priority of the Legislature when it begins its work next year.

LePage has given numerous reasons, all of which are flawed and can be easily debunked, for refusing to issue the senior housing bond.

In a rambling press conference last month, he said issuing it would hurt the state’s credit rating, a claim he also made the day after 69 percent of Maine voters supported the financing last November.

But state Treasurer Terry Hayes said last year that the state’s bond rating has little to do with single bond issues. The most important factor is the strength of the state’s economy, which is the best indicator of whether the state will be able to make good on its debt obligations. If an individual borrowing package could affect the state’s bond rating, though, the $85 million transportation bond that Maine voters approved last year alongside the $15 million housing bond would more likely have an impact for the simple reason that it’s much larger than the housing bond.

Despite his supposed concern for Maine’s credit rating, though, LePage fully supported the $85 million transportation bond.

In his Oct. 13 press conference, LePage also said developers will get rich from the projects the senior housing bond would support. In fact, the amount of money a developer can make from such projects is capped at a level set by MaineHousing’s governor-appointed board of directors. For a 30-unit affordable housing project, the total development fee would be $500,000. The developer would use this money to cover administrative and overhead expenses for the project, which would likely cost at least $5 million.

Further, if developers got rich building affordable housing for seniors, they’d be building it already without the need for state bond money to incentivize the projects.

Making another excuse for sitting on voter-approved bond proceeds, LePage said senior housing facilities should include telemedicine. Indeed, this is already required in projects that the bond money would fund.

And another excuse from LePage is that money should be spent on rehabilitating and modifying seniors’ homes, not on building new facilities. Inconveniently for LePage, the voter-approved bond includes $500,000 for home modifications, particularly weatherization.

What hasn’t changed while LePage has made excuses for his disrespect for the voters’ will is the need for more affordable senior housing. Nearly 10,000 Maine senior households are currently on waiting lists, according to a recent survey by the Maine Real Estate Managers Association. That’s an increase of nearly 1,000 since last year’s survey.

The state’s inventory, meanwhile, gained only 39 new affordable senior apartments, in Gorham and Biddeford, this year. A 47-unit development in a former schoolhouse in Augusta is expected soon.

At this rate, seniors awaiting safe and affordable housing will wait for years — often in unsafe, unmanageable housing.

One way forward is for a newly constituted legislature to consider legislation to bypass the governor — something that lawmakers tried when LePage refused to issue voter-approved Land for Maine’s Future bonds. LePage vetoed that legislation, and the House failed to override his veto. Given the great need for senior housing, this route is worth trying again.

Another bond could help to line up additional funds to tap after LePage leaves office.

The only unacceptable option at this point is to do nothing and allow Maine’s already long waiting lists for senior housing to grow even longer.

Bangor Daily News