Too many steps! Or why we need the Senior Affordable Housing Bond...
Like many people in Maine, my husband and I live in what I call the "ruburbs" (the rural suburbs) where we have a lot of privacy. We also have a LOT of steps like the ones in the picture here. From the car it's 16 steps just to get into the lower part of the house, and 28 steps to get to the mudroom. No railings anywhere. More steps into my office and to the bathroom or the bedrooms. Steps everywhere.
When we bought this place we were in our late 20s, and steps were no issue. We loved steps! Cheaper than a StairMaster...Lately, though, I find myself peering into the future and imagining my husband trying to bump me down the steps in a wheelchair. Or crawling up the steps on my hands and knees. In winter. Through 18 inches of snow. That's when I announce to him (yet again) "I'm not getting old in this house!" Because I know that at some point this house that we love will simply become too much for us to handle. And forget having friends come over for dinner...
So, readers, be warned. You will get to this place sooner than you think, and your parents may already be here. Can they cruise through old age in the house they're in now?
OK, so where will we live when our houses become unlivable for us? My husband and I are lucky to have some savings, so although I'm starting to think about this I'm hopeful we'll be able to figure something out.
But for seniors without much money, the situation is a lot scarier. According to a study commissioned by the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition (MAHC), Maine has a lot of seniors; in fact on a percentage basis we have more seniors than any other state. About a third of Maine's population is 55 or older (I guess I need to start thinking of them as "my people", since I'm at the low end of this age group.) That's equal to about 420,000 people. And by 2022- only 7 years from now- there will be another 55,000 of my people. So what, you might say? A lot of us can still work, still have years of work ahead of us before we can retire. And that's true (darn!).
But more than one in three Maine seniors doesn't have a lot of money. Imagine if you spent your whole life waitressing, or working retail, or working seasonal jobs throughout the year, because those were the jobs that were left when the mills shut down. You might have been able to scrape by, but saving for retirement would be pretty hard. So as you go into old age and work less, instead of being part of the "working poor" you're just plain old poor. And, because this happens when we humans age, you probably have at least one major health problem or another. As you might expect, people who work physical jobs for a living (think construction) tend to wear out faster than those of us who sit in offices all day long.
In addition to having a lot of old people, Maine has a lot of old houses that, like ours, have steps and other features that aren't friendly to a person with wobbly legs or a wheelchair. Old houses often cost a lot to heat because they weren't built with much insulation. Finally, housing is expensive. If you own a home you need to pay property taxes, fix the roof, make sure the furnace works, plow the driveway, etc. If you rent the landlord takes care of some of those things, but rents usually go up a lot faster than incomes- especially retirement incomes.
According to that MAHC study, it's hardest for renters- about half of senior renters live in housing that is too expensive for them. And the poorer they are, the more of their income is gobbled up by rent; the poorest people are paying over half of their income every month just to keep a roof over their heads. So, for example, if your income is about $1,000 a month, and you're paying $500 for rent, you have just $500 left for food,
heat, electricity, clothing, and medical care, including your prescriptions.
So during the winter some seniors literally have to decide- what do I want to do this week? Should I eat, stay warm, or take my heart medicine, because I sure can't afford to do all three.
According to the MAHC study, Maine needs to create 9,000 new units around the state to accommodate the seniors there are now. And by 2022 we'll need another 6,000 new units because the number of seniors is growing so fast. That's a lot of new housing. It costs a lot and takes time to build. So we'd better get started.
Luckily, some far-sighted legislators and MAHC have proposed LD 1205, "An Act To Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue To Support the Independence of Maine's Seniors." LD 1205 would allow the state to issue up to $65 million in bonds to create affordable, energy-efficient rental housing for seniors. In the process it would leverage an additional $100 million in other funds. A portion of the bonds could be used to repair and weatherize homes of low-income seniors to help them stay there longer. Each county would see at least one new project, and the goal is to build the housing in places that have access to health care services, shopping, and public transportation. (In other words, you can't just put the housing out in the middle of nowhere because the land is cheap.)
There seems to be pretty good support in the legislature for this bill. It makes sense-- interest rates are low now so it's a good time to borrow. And just about everyone knows someone who could really use this housing.
Unluckily, Governor LePage is more focused on eliminating the state income tax than on helping low-income seniors. He wants us to believe this will be good for Maine, that we can get rid of the income tax and still run all the programs we know and love, though it hasn't been working so well in states like New Hampshire, which has no income tax. This year New Hampshire is proposing to chop $10.5 million in services to seniors (see "NH retirees shocked by proposed cuts to senior services.") Or in Kansas, where a few years ago Governor Brownback enacted huge tax cuts (see "Lessons for Other States from Kansas' Massive Tax Cuts.") Those tax cuts have hurt schools, reduced social services, have failed to boost the state's economy, and made the effect of the Great Recession much, much worse. I'll try to take a longer look at the proposed income tax cut in a future blog, but judging by how well it's worked in other states it seems like a terrible idea for Maine.
We can afford a Maine that provides housing help to the people who need it most. Our Moms and Dads, aunts and uncles, or the couple down the street who used to give your kids cookies when they were young. People who worked hard their whole lives and took care of other people in need, but who now need a little help from the rest of us. And, 20 years from now, it might be my husband and me, or your parents. Or you.
Contact your state senator and representative today and urge them to pass LD 1205 to create more housing for Maine seniors.
* In the housing world, "affordable" means you spend no more that 30% of your gross income on your rent or house payment.