By Dan Macleod
The few years before they moved into their new apartment, Barbara Rummler and her husband were struggling.
Her freelance copy editing work had started to dry up around 2007.
Her husband, Bill Lonergan, 72, had not worked since he suffered his first stroke in the early 2000s, and they were mostly living on their combined Social Security. But the rent at their Sanford house was still around $1,100, plus utilities, and they had two cars on the road.
“We were just barely putting food on the table and paying the bills. I had a couple part-time jobs gardening and that kind of thing, but it was tough,” said Rummler, 73.
“So we were choking. Big time. … The way we were living was untenable. Everything was going into rent, and we couldn’t go anywhere. Yes, we loved to eat our veggies, but [we] didn’t eat much meat. You learn to cut to make it happen.”
They were lucky enough in 2013 to land a subsidized apartment in Kennebunk, part of a $7.6 million, 30-unit development called the Park Street School Apartments, which was built in a former school and opened in 2012.
They now pay around $670 a month, which includes utilities. Rummler is also the coordinator for one of the town’s community gardens that’s set behind the apartment building.
“This is the first time since my husband and I have been together that we have not had to really struggle,” she said.
From Kennebunk to Fort Fairfield, developers and towns are trying to allay the intensifying scarcity of affordable senior housing by building with public subsidies and tax programs.
Residents and stakeholders involved in their construction say these developments are helping to fill a need.
But if the three- to five-year waiting list at Park Street is any indication, they’re barely putting a dent in the demand.
“These are great successes for the people that are lucky to get in, and people are generally happy,” said Greg Payne, development officer for Avesta Housing, which developed the Park Street Apartments. “The hard part that’s a little less warm and fuzzy is the person calling today who’s number 236 on the waiting list to get in.”
In 2013, Maine’s median age of 43.9 was the oldest in the nation. It also has the greatest share of residents aged 55 and over.
And as the population ages, those who live on fixed incomes — like Social Security — spend more of that income on their mortgage, rent or repairs. In some cases, their homes are simply too big for them, or they’re too costly to heat in the winter, advocates say.
“Basically our housing has not kept up with our longevity,” said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “We’re living longer than anyone ever anticipated.”
That’s a problem for a population that’s increasingly dependent on Social Security. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, “low-income households aged 65 and over rely on Social Security payments for 85 percent of their incomes.”
And according to a recent study from a Massachusetts consulting firm, which was contracted by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, the state could be short 15,000 affordable housing units by 2022. In 2012, there was a gap of 9,000, it found. That calculation is based on the number of people over the age of 55 spending greater than 30 percent of their income on housing.
The Maine State Housing Authority, the channel through which many of these units get built, forecast in 2011 that the state by now would have a deficit of over 8,000 subsidized units for seniors over the age of 62.
There’s also a booming demand for, and supply of, market-rate apartments, which fetch higher rents. But advocates say that without public subsidies, the kinds of apartments that the state needs — like Park Street — will not get built.
“It’s simply impossible to build housing with sources that require debt payment while keeping the rents low enough to actually be affordable,” said Payne.
The Kennebunk project was funded with state and federal historic tax credits, among other sources. But the biggest share of the cost was $2.75 million in equity from a federal low-income housing tax credit, a subsidy that helps to build about 90 percent of all affordable housing in the U.S. by giving tax breaks to banks or other firms that provide the investment.
It works like this: A developer applies to MaineHousing for one of two types of credits — one that funds around 70 percent of a project, or one that only funds about 30 percent. The authority scores the proposal, and either rejects it or awards it the tax credit. Once approved, the developer then sells that credit to a bank or other firm that can write off a percentage of the investment over the following decade.
MaineHousing will then find other subsidies to fund the remainder, or give the developer a loan.
But there isn’t much of the tax credit money to go around. The federal government gives MaineHousing about $2.6 to $3 million each year in these tax credits. So of the 14 proposals it got last year, it only approved five.
Meanwhile, the gap grows between what Maine needs and what it can build.
“People are aging into that bracket faster than we can build apartments,” said Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for the authority.
The Fort Fairfield Tradition
Perched on the Canadian border, Fort Fairfield is a study in the broader problems plaguing Maine.
It’s remote. Its population is dwindling. Young people don’t stick around.
But it also reflects the proud Maine tradition of making do with what you have.
When a downtown health clinic run by Aroostook Medical Center asked for help in filling three quarters of its building to offset costs, the town considered putting housing in that space.
Fort Fairfield ultimately opted to build a new 25-unit affordable housing project for seniors on a field on the edge of downtown, and the existing clinic stayed put and tore down the unused space.
Tony Levesque, the town’s community development director, argued that around that time, Fort Fairfield was the nation’s oldest town.
“I said we need help. We’re the oldest community in the United States. And … we’re short on affordable senior housing,” he said.
And that need was growing.
Between 2009 and the time The Meadows was built, the pool of renters in the area who met the age requirement was forecast to increase 13 or 14 percent, said Wayne Troicke, executive director of the town’s housing authority.
“That was only looking at our old target of 62 and above. When you open it up to 55 you even have a larger market that’s eligible for this project in this area,” he said.
While Maine as a whole has struggled to retain its younger workers, Fort Fairfield is also trying to keep its seniors in town.
“What we saw was leakage. They were leaving Fort Fairfield to go to housing elsewhere,” Levesque said.
“It’s our families. It’s our lifeblood. In order to keep the generations here, we have to stay here and, to me, part of that is taking care of our seniors. It’s like from cradle to grave. It’s so cyclical.”
But the town built it in a creative way: It acted as its own developer, which allowed it to collect a fee from the total project cost. It then used that fee to help build an adjacent health clinic.
“[The town] got about $350,000 out of being the developer,” Troicke said. “Then we donated land to the clinic, so we could co-locate it here, make it close to where the tenants are living.”
By developing it themselves, town leaders were able to cut some of the red tape.
If an outside developer had led the project, “I think it would just be another meeting,” Levesque said. “The information was readily available to us whereas a developer would have to gather that information.”
And the town and its housing authority know what’s needed.
“They’re in the community; they know a lot about the community’s needs; they’re already connected with that target population — lower income seniors,” said Tom MacDonald, vice president of acquisitions for Northern New England Housing Investment Fund, which helped find an investor for the project. “It’s easier for them to determine the need than maybe just a for-profit developer.”
The town broke ground in 2012 and opened The Meadows in October 2013.
By the next spring, it was totally full.