Since the devastating Gardiner fire of February 4, folks from all across our community have come forward to help the 30 people who once called Highland Avenue Terrace their home. Though the outpouring of support for the fire victims has been heartwarming, the fire has also shed light on a growing problem in our region and across this state — a shortage of affordable housing, especially among seniors.

The results of this fire could certainly have been worse. The amazing work of our firefighters in responding to the blaze that night and the quick thinking of the residents themselves prevented what could have been a horrible tragedy. All of the residents escaped the blaze — most in their pajamas, in the middle of a freezing cold night. Fortunately, unlike the tragic fires that have scourged other cities across Maine in recent months, the apartment building was up to code, and firewalls and doors slowed the spread of the fire.

Staff from C.B. Mattson’s, the owner of the building, worked tirelessly to help with emergency housing and meeting the basic needs of their tenants, several of whom lost everything they owned. Youth and staff of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Gardiner, the city of Gardiner, Johnson Hall, the United Way of Kennebec Valley, the American Red Cross of Maine and other local organizations, businesses and individuals stepped up to help, raising funds and working to provide emergency shelter, clothing and food.

It’s all critically important and greatly appreciated. But local fundraising efforts can only go so far to meet longer-term needs.

Fortunately, Mattson’s was able to immediately place many folks in its other properties. However, it has taken months after the fire to find new apartments for all of the fire victims.

One woman, who was hospitalized and treated for minor injuries from the fire, waited in the hospital for well over a month before being transferred to an assisted living facility, where she still waits for a handicap-accessible apartment that is supposed to be available May 1.

Her partner, who is her primary caregiver, is living in a nearby motel, thanks to the help of the city’s fire victim fund, so he can be close by, and because he has no place else to go.

In trying to find resources to address these constituents’ needs, I have learned firsthand about the housing crisis our state is facing. Ironically, one afternoon after attending a lunch at the Boys & Girls Club for the fire victims, I came back to the State House to my committee to listen to public hearing testimony from folks all across the state about the shortage of affordable housing in Maine, especially critical for seniors and people with disabilities.

I did some additional research and one thing is crystal clear: Unless we policymakers take some immediate action, this problem is only going to grow worse. That is why I have cosponsored legislation by House Speaker Mark Eves for a state bond issue to build 1,000 units of affordable, energy-efficient housing in Maine.

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, which comprises more than 120 business leaders and housing professionals, commissioned extensive research on the housing problems facing seniors in Maine. Analyzing the most recent U.S. Census data, those researchers have uncovered some compelling reasons why this legislation is critical. In 2012, there was a shortage of nearly 9,000 units of affordable housing for older people. Without any changes, that shortfall will increase to more than 15,000 in just seven years.

With Maine’s distinction as the oldest state in the nation and the fact that a sizeable portion of our older residents have limited incomes and at least one disabling condition, the plight of Gardiner’s fire victims is a perfect illustration of the housing cliff on which our state is perched. You can be sure that I will have their situations firmly in mind when the committee on which I serve considers this bond issue.

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, is serving her second term in the Maine House and represents Gardiner and Farmingdale. She is a member of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee.


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