Maine State Housing Authority recently held their bi-annual affordable housing conference. The theme was “Lead. Assist. Empower.” This year they invited partners to submit ideas for workshops and with over 30 entries, they selected 15 of the most compelling submissions. I knew that a cooperative housing workshop would be a timely conversation, exciting and attracting many. I reached out to partner with three well-informed cooperative experts: Raise-Op Housing, Genesis Fund, and Maine State Housing Authority, to put together an idea for a workshop about Cooperative Housing. I was right on target. We were chosen to present at the conference and we were excited to take part.

Jeanee Wright, on the far right, organized a panel discussion on cooperative housing at the Maine Housing Authority’s annual conference on affordable housing

Here are some my biggest takeaways from this conference:

Maine Senator, the Honorable Susan Collins was one of two keynote speakers for this event. I knew she was a strong advocate for affordable housing in Maine, but to hear her passion and commitment was inspiring. Did you know she has never missed one single vote during her tenure? She was so very humble and spoke words that were respectful of the issues that the congressional legislature has been facing this current fiscal year. She shared facts about the proposed federal budget that at one time had massive housing program cuts but had now been fully restored (in some cases increased) thanks to careful work and review by those who were attentive and diligent.

She shared personal stories of meeting people who were living in homeless shelters and how often those she met were of multi-generational poverty. She spoke about how it is important that essential workers in Portland can afford to live in the city that they work in and protect. She also spoke about the concern of aging Mainers who cannot live in homes that they have been in all of their life due to instability and isolation. There have been little changes made to support this growing concern. Did you know that the effects of isolation on health are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day? We need more housing that supports community services and engagement.

Senator Collins stated what those are involved in cooperative development already know all too well: a stable home is the foundation to a better quality of life. All of the affordable housing issues that we see need to be addressed with policy change and funding support.

We also heard from Dr. Megan Sandel. Dr. Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University Children’s hospital, shared incredible research in regards to the correlation between homeless, near homeless, and food insecure to the impact on the cost of healthcare. She reminded those of us in the housing sector that we were also healthcare workers.

I have connected housing to wellness through community services but never before had I seen the financial figures and alarming rates of illness that are associated with insecure housing. Dignified, stable housing she said, is a vaccine that prevents many childhood illnesses.

Our workshop on Cooperative Development was at the end of the day which at first, I thought was a disadvantage. I could not have been more wrong. After Senator Collins and Dr. Sandel highlighting the need for sustainable and quality housing, a panel on cooperative development hit the nail on the head. Cooperative housing not only preserves housing for anyone who takes part, but the low equity model that CDI supports is the solution to several of the key points made throughout the day. Cooperative community solves isolation. Cooperative communities provide forums for services, and empower the people who live there to become owners and lead change. Often cooperative housing residents ramp up efforts to provide services and programs for community members. They work together to plan projects for home repairs and community infrastructure. This is in addition to addressing the need for preserving vulnerable housing that is unsubsidized and providing good, safe, and dignified homes to low income people, seniors, and working individuals.

The workshop was a hit and was well attended. Our expert panel framed a great conversation that truly tied into the conversation of the day; affordable housing programs must be a priority in Maine. My message to both Senator Collins and Dr. Sandel? We clearly need more cooperative housing that is affordable, dignified, community-minded, and accessible to all.

NEROC Program Leads Discussion On Cooperative Housing at Maine State Housing Authority Conference