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STORIES OF STRUGGLE | July 21, 2013

The crisis in housing

As Laurette Lauze of Lewiston can attest, a backlog of projects and increasing demand mean the already lengthy waiting lists for subsidized living arrangements for seniors will only grow longer.

Kelley Bouchard

| Staff Writer
kbouchard@mainetoday.com

Laurette Lauze, 68, of Lewiston at her home. Lauze recently put her name on a waiting list for senior housing in Lewiston because she can no longer afford or care for the three-bedroom ranch she once shared with her mother and sister.

In the background is her friend since high school, Lucille Gendron-Cates, 68, of Auburn. Lucille recently moved into senior housing in Auburn after waiting 18 months because her husband died and she couldn’t afford or care for their mobile home alone.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Laurette Lauze grew more concerned with every inch of snow that fell during a record-breaking blizzard in February. The fearful experience was the push she needed to finally put her name on a waiting list for subsidized senior housing in Lewiston.

U

nfortunately, Lauze said, she has no idea how long it will take to get an apartment. She could be waiting a while. Some housing authorities in Maine have two-or three-year waiting lists.

Lewiston has 132 seniors waiting for openings in 296 units, according to Residential Initiatives for Maine, a group of public housing officials. Lewiston’s list is short compared to other cities, such as Auburn, where 405 seniors wait for 231 units, Portland, where 580 seniors wait for 439 units, and Brunswick, where 601 seniors wait for 189 units. Some seniors put their names on multiple lists, hoping to increase their chances.

Lauze, 68, hopes she gets into the Frye School Apartments sooner than later. She retired three years ago after working more than 40 years for a fiberglass manufacturer. She’s been thinking about moving into senior housing for a while.

The three-bedroom ranch she once shared with her mother and her sister now consumes most of her $1,200-a-month Social Security check. But it took a blizzard to show her how vulnerable she is.

“Heating, maintenance, repairs – the house is taking everything.”

“Heating, maintenance, repairs – the house is taking everything,” she said. “But that blizzard on Feb. 9 was the last straw. I had 4 feet of snow at the end of my driveway. For a long time, I couldn’t get out and nobody could get in. I felt like an animal in a cage. It scared the crap out of me.”

Because Maine has one of the highest homeownership rates in the nation (71.3 percent) and the sixth-oldest housing stock (27.8 percent built before 1940), seniors here increasingly find themselves with more house than they need and limited finances and physical ability to maintain it, according to the Maine State Housing Authority. Rampant problems include structural decay, outdated heating systems, lack of insulation and weatherization, and accessibility issues such as steep stairs and narrow doorways.

During the last seven years, the authority helped to fund an average of 134 subsidized senior housing units completed each year, making small dents in the need for 8,000 additional units by 2015.

But housing officials and developers say the agency could have done a lot more during the last two years, when interest rates were low and construction companies needed work.

In early 2011, Gov. Paul LePage stopped signing certain federally backed, tax-exempt bonds issued by the authority. The bonds trigger 4 percent low-income housing tax credits that developers use to build subsidized housing. The move was part of LePage’s effort to control the state’s debt, though tax-exempt bonds are considered a helpful federal subsidy by most states and a good, low-risk investment by private investors.

LePage’s moratorium caused developers to cancel or delay many housing projects, according to the Associated General Contractors of Maine.

Now, there’s a backlog of 13 senior housing projects across the state, from South Berwick to South Portland to Old Town, the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition reports. If funded, they would produce at least 558 units for a total cost of $72.8 million, including $54.7 million in bonds.

“We have very few resources to create housing in Maine, and one of them got shut off. To lose that funding was frustrating and damaging,” said coalition coordinator Greg Payne, a development officer at Avesta Housing, a nonprofit housing developer in Portland.

Payne said his agency has waiting lists that rival Maine’s public housing authorities. Stonecrest II, a 25-unit low-income housing project in Standish that was completed in February, already has a waiting list of 81 households.

“That’s the waiting list after a few months,” Payne said. “What that list is going to look like a year from now is even more frightening.”

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