July 5, 2016

By Kelley Bouchard

Portland Press Herald

Gov. Paul LePage and his adversaries agree that the housing needs of Maine’s low-income seniors have fallen prey to politics, but some housing advocates are trying to work around the State House stalemate.


In a January 2015 report, affordable-housing advocates identified an immediate need for 9,000 apartments for low-income older Mainers. Since then, the Maine State Housing Authority has approved funding to subsidize the construction of 310 additional senior housing units.


Maine’s rapidly growing senior population is projected to push the affordable housing need to 15,000 units by 2022, according to the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. The state housing authority typically subsidizes fewer than 150 new senior housing units each year, which means already long waiting lists will likely grow and thousands of seniors could find themselves without affordable, safe housing in the near future.


Despite the growing need, LePage is blocking a $15 million bond issue, approved by voters last November, that would subsidize the construction of 225 additional senior housing units over the next few years.


The governor, a Republican, has five years to issue the general obligation bonds. Some housing advocates expect LePage to leave the task to the governor who follows him in 2019, rather than authorize spending for an initiative promoted by House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democratic adversary.


While most housing advocates hope the governor puts politics aside to address the needs of Maine seniors, they’re developing other strategies to increase funding for affordable senior housing in the coming months.


“Now it’s a matter of fulfilling the wishes of the voters and meeting a clear need among Maine seniors,” said Rick McCarthy, an Eaton Peabody consultant and lobbyist for the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which includes developers and builders.


“We are going to be encouraging the governor to do the right thing and release the bonds,” McCarthy said. “In the best-case situation, the administration decides to move forward on its own.”


If LePage doesn’t issue the $15 million bond, then the coalition and others are prepared to offer fresh legislation early next year that would bypass the governor’s block, McCarthy said. A similar proposal by Eves passed the Democratic-controlled House in March but failed in the Republican-controlled Senate. A different result likely would depend on the outcome of November’s legislative elections.


There’s also interest in pushing for the remaining $50 million of the $65 million bond issue that Eves initially sought last year to subsidize the construction of 1,000 senior housing units across the state. The divided Legislature ultimately allowed only $15 million to go to referendum last November.


“We asked for $65 million and we got $15 million,” McCarthy said. “That’s just a start. We know we need more than that.”


State housing officials don’t dispute that they could create more senior housing if they had more money for subsidies, which encourage developers to forgo the profits that come with building market rate housing. Of the 310 senior units that the state housing authority has subsidized since the start of 2015, 109 units are under construction and 201 units are in the planning stages.


“This has become a political issue and nothing good can happen to us out of that,” said Peter Merrill, the authority’s deputy director. “We need both the governor and the Legislature to fulfill our mission. We will administer to the best of our ability whatever we are given.”


The governor continues to support the “balanced approach” that state housing officials have taken to address both family and senior housing needs “with the resources they have,” his spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said in an email.


Bennett didn’t say exactly why the governor hasn’t issued the $15 million senior housing bond, other than to note that the state housing authority has the capacity to issue its own bonds.


“It is an election year and Democrats are using this as a way to point the finger at the governor,” Bennett said. “The governor’s door is always open when people are willing to work toward common ground with real solutions. We need lawmakers who are willing to put partisan politics aside.”


Eves, who terms out of office at the end of this year, said he believes LePage is blocking the senior housing bond just because it was Eves’ proposal. Eves led a series of round-table talks and a recent statewide summit that drew widespread attention to a variety of aging issues facing Maine, including a lack of affordable senior housing.


“It’s hard for me to come to another conclusion,” Eves said. “If this were (Republican Rep.) Ken Fredette’s bill, it would already be signed into law. I do think (the governor is) playing politics with this issue and I think it’s unconscionable.”


Eves disputed any claim that the state cannot afford to issue general obligation bonds to subsidize more senior housing construction. He noted that in April the Legislature passed – and the governor immediately signed – two bond packages that will ask voters in November to authorize $150 million in borrowing for transportation projects and research-and-development initiatives.


“There’s no basis in fact for withholding the senior housing bond,” Eves said. “Interest rates are so low. Contractors want the work. Seniors need housing. We need to make this investment now.”

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