ELLSWORTH — Governor Janet Mills signed off on the release of $15 million in housing bonds on Jan. 15, money that will also trigger over $22 million in matching funds and could help alleviate the pressure for affordable senior housing in Hancock County.
“We have a couple sites in mind,” said Jason Bird, housing development director at Penquis, which developed both the Leonard Lake and Straw Way apartments. “We’re waiting to see what the details are before we launch full force.”
The request for proposals should be put out soon, said Bird, at which point developers will be able to submit proposals to Maine Housing, which is administering the funds.
The bonds require that at least four of the properties be in rural counties with populations under 100,000. (This applies to the majority of the state, as only five counties have populations exceeding that.)
The sale of the bonds will likely go forward this summer, but $500,000 will be immediately released for weatherization projects.
The bond package will likely create around 200 new units spread between eight or nine projects and provide money for another 100 to 200 homes to be upgraded and weatherized, said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
The funds were approved by voters during a 2015 referendum but had been blocked by then-Governor Paul LePage.
Payne said it would likely be “upwards of two years” before the projects would be completed.
“This is one of the frustrating things” about having the funds held, he said.
“None of this necessary work has been able to happen,” Payne continued. “Now all of this can go into motion.”
Downeast Community Partners, which developed two units for veterans in Milbridge and is working on a tiny house for a veteran in Cherryfield, plans to apply for bond funding for duplexes in Machias, where the nonprofit owns land near the center of town, Director Mark Green said.
“At this point we are not involved in any projects in Hancock County, although we’d certainly love to be,” Green said.
Projects vying for this type of funding are awarded points for proximity to hospitals and necessities such as grocery stores, said Green, which makes Ellsworth and other Hancock County communities particularly attractive for senior housing.
Many seniors are looking for housing that is “fairly simple and efficient, 700 to 800 square feet,” said Green, that is comfortable, low-maintenance and affordable, as well as clustered in a way to “promote interaction.”
“The other key component is to locate it where people can get the services,” Green said. He added, “We just need housing in our region. Different types of housing fit different needs.”
In a 2015 report commissioned by the city of Ellsworth, authors present two projections looking forward over the next 15 years: one in which the population of Hancock County continues to age and the overall number of households declines.
Under that scenario, “the county would have declining overall demand for housing, which would mean that fewer new housing units could be supported regionally without driving up vacancy rates.”
Housing would need to be adapted for the older population, authors write, and “This shift could result in a market with too many prospective older sellers and not enough younger buyers to fully sustain the housing transitions that seniors want to make.”
In the second scenario, the population also continues to age but there is a modest net growth in the total number of households as workers move into the region to fill jobs. But this depends on the ability of the region to attract young workers, authors write.
While it’s relatively simple to predict the growth in senior households, it’s harder to tell if there will be migration into the area.
As of 2015, Hancock County had 622 senior apartments with both age and income restrictions, many of which are subsidized, according to the report. Most are concentrated in Ellsworth and on Mount Desert Island.
Two hundred eighteen of these units are Ellsworth. But despite this stock, the report estimates that there are around 300 Ellsworth households aged 65 and older with a high housing cost burden, who pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs.
And, the report notes, there are no senior housing developments for those who make too much to qualify for the low- to moderate-income units.
But building new units is not the only solution, note the report’s authors. Many seniors are interested in staying in their homes, or “aging in place.”
To that end, installing handrails, grab bars and other home improvements can “make it easier for those with increasing disability to remain in their homes longer.”
There also must be a focus on boosting jobs, authors write. Without this, seniors won’t be able to sell their houses and “pursue more suitable housing alternatives.”
Payne said agencies around the state are looking at ways to fund housing projects on a more consistent basis.
“Where we’re going to pivot to next is trying to create an ongoing state resource to leverage federal dollars,” Payne said.
Such programs exist in Massachusetts and states around the country, he said, and Maine is working on a plan modeled on the state’s Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit.
The AARP of Maine estimates that more than 9,000 low-income seniors are on waiting lists for affordable housing.
“Given the scope of need it would be unfortunate if it was another 15 years before another GO [general obligation] bond was approved,” Payne said.