Viewpoint: Safe housing and vulnerable groups

By Cynthia Cullinane

Our Maine Legislature is in high gear trying to finish up hearing testimony, analyzing financial information, completing committee work sessions and submitting bills for legislative votes before they adjourn this 128th session. Many of these bills address the concerns of our vulnerable populations, and several of those concerns have high profiles in the media, such as the opioid crisis, domestic violence, child safety, gun violence and marijuana use.

That naturally leaves other important measures in the background. One such measure is LD 735, An Act to Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Support the Independence of Maine’s Seniors. The bill was proposed a year ago, and testimony was finally heard in January of this year. The bill is now languishing in committee awaiting a work session and a recommendation.

Vice President Hubert Humphrey is credited with the quotation “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

This bill addresses those bookend populations, our seniors and our children. But it also addresses another significant issue: inadequate affordable housing for our workforce.

Passage by the Legislature will put the bond issue in front of Maine voters in November for approval. Three programs will be funded with these bond funds: workforce housing, lead abatement and senior housing. The original $50 million will be leveraged so that $75 million ultimately will be available for the projects funded through these bonds.

Success in life requires security in a few significant areas: food, shelter, personal safety. According to the Maine State Housing Authority, more than half of Maine households are unable to afford the 2017 median home price, a decline of almost 2 percent from 2016, and the same picture holds for rental affordability as well. This bill would provide $11.6 million for the construction of new workforce/family housing units.

Lead poisoning is another critical issue for our young children. Maine has the eighth-oldest housing stock in the United States, and half of the homes here were constructed before 1978, when the U.S. Congress banned lead in paint. So it is not surprising to learn that in 2016, 40 years after the ban, more than 400 Maine children under the age of six showed levels of lead in their blood that exceeded the threshold for safe limits established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Lead poisoning can result in permanent brain injury, with lifelong reduction of various cognitive, behavioral and emotional abilities. $5 million of the bond funds will provide resources to remove lead from affected homes.

The 2010 Census reported that about 20 percent of Maine’s population is aged over 65, and this segment is expected to increase to about 30 percent by 2030. Studies demonstrate that as Maine’s residents grow older, their income decreases, and they are increasingly likely to fall below the poverty line. This financial burden and their declining physical abilities make it more difficult to maintain their homes in safe, habitable condition.

Currently, about 10,000 senior households are waiting for affordable housing, and these wait times can be as long as five years. The majority of the bond funds will be used to address these needs by providing the resources to build new housing as well as to repair existing housing for our senior residents.

This bill is a win-win situation for all parties: our seniors, our workforce and our children who need safe and affordable housing, for investors who purchase the bonds, the developers and contractors who provide employment opportunities, and the communities in which these housing units are constructed and repaired.

Cynthia Cullinane is a student in the Master of Social Work Program at the University of Maine in Orono. She lives in Trenton.

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