Newsmakers 2011: John Hodge
The Annual Newsmakers Series: profiles local individuals whose circumstances reflect major stories of the year. As the nation continues to grapple with fallout from the burst housing bubble and the Mid-coast region prepares to convert more than 700 units of military housing to civilian use, John Hodge, executive director of the Brunswick and Topsham housing authorities, works to ensure that market instability doesn’t undermine local people’s ability to feel secure in their homes.
BRUNSWICK — John Hodge was exposed early to the role government assistance can play in getting a family back on its feet.
His father, a mill worker, quit his job to go back to school in his early 40s, supporting eight sons at a home in Mexico, Maine, all the while.
Hodge’s father would eventually earn his certificate in wastewater treatment and move the family to Jay to manage wastewater operations for the town, but the transition was trying, Hodge said.
“We were on government assistance and had half the income,” Hodge said, recalling “the big buckets of peanut butter and blocks of cheese — and then things improved.”
As executive director of the Brunswick Housing Authority (BHA), Hodge said he hopes that the clients receiving housing help from his agency are able to follow a similar trajectory.
“(My father) was able to provide more and didn’t need the government assistance any more,” Hodge said, “and that’s what these programs are for.”
But walking the line of providing support where it is most needed is not easy, Hodge said.
“It’s not a black-and-white world,” Hodge said, noting that circumstances vary. “We may have people who don’t deserve (assistance) or abuse the system, but we have to be careful that we don’t eliminate (assistance) for families who do need it.”
Deciding who does and who does not receive assistance and how to provide assistance is a tough task, Hodge said — one he said occasionally comes with critics.
In one case, Hodge said, the BHA decided not to immediately fill one of its housing units after a resident left to move to the Augusta area. A neighbor of the woman got on the phone with local government representatives, questioning why the BHA would leave a public housing unit vacant for any period of time, Hodge said.
“You could say, black and white, yeah, we should have been giving that unit to someone else,” Hodge said. “But the circumstance was that she was trying to reconcile with her husband and she continued to pay rent.”
The reconciliation did not work, Hodge said, and the woman moved back into the unit that she had been allowed to vacate temporarily.
“From the standpoint of what we do, it made sense to hold that for her,” Hodge said.
In 1987, Hodge was a recent graduate from the University of Southern Maine, at home after completing an internship at the United Way of Greater Portland. Then the phone rang.
“This is no lie,” Hodge said. “The woman said, ‘We understand that you’re looking for a job, would you like to come and interview?’”
The interview landed Hodge a probationary spot at the Portland Housing Authority. During his internship, Hodge said, he had worked with a commissioner of the housing authority, Michael Brennan, who this November was elected Portland’s first mayor.
A recommendation from Brennan led to the call that would put him in the business of housing assistance for 25 years, Hodge said, moving south along the Androscoggin River to Brunswick.
Hodge’s seven brothers — including his twin brother, James — now bridge a broad range of professions. His oldest brother, a chemistry Ph.D., runs a chemistry lab at the University of Texas. His youngest brother works for a company that fabricates sheet metal.
Reflecting on his early years, Hodge said his father’s return to school and the move to Jay offered his family more opportunities, and the possibility of going to college.
That foundation, Hodge said, allowed him to pursue his career, but that’s not the case for everyone.
“If you’re raised with a single parent who maybe dropped out of high school and couldn’t help you with your school work, your chances for success may be limited,” Hodge said.
Having a strong foundation growing up is an “incredible gift” that not all families have, Hodge said, “and I think that’s why we end up having programs like we have here, because not everybody has the same opportunities.”
Currently, the BHA owns, subsidizes and has built a total of 772 housing units in Freeport, Harpswell, Topsham, Bath, Durham, Lisbon, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham.
In total, according to Hodge, the BHA’s programs support a total of 1,278 people in those towns where the housing authority has worked to define just what affordable housing is.
In Harpswell, where Hodge said the median home price hovers around $400,000, the BHA is working to fill units at its Hamilton Place subdivision, which will sell at prices between $160,000 and $200,000, Hodge said.
As a guide for what qualifies as affordable housing, Hodge said, he compares the median home price to the median income of a community.
Providing housing for a person earning the minimum wage, Hodge said, may still be far out of reach.
“That household is going to have a tough time paying $800 a month in rent on top of food and health care costs,” Hodge said.
Recently, Hodge expressed concerns about pricing at about 702 former military housing units in Brunswick and Topsham that could start entering the market as early as January 2012, according to plans drafted by developer George Schott’s company, Affordable Midcoast Housing (AMH).
AMH’s plan states that houses will meet the state’s standard for “affordable housing” by being affordable to people making 120 percent of Brunswick’s median income or less.
Based on the price range AMH projected for former military homes in the Mc- Keen Street neighborhood, Hodge said, families making around 70 percent of Brunswick’s median income could afford a home there.
However, Hodge continues to try to “add a voice to the discussion” about his concern for providing housing families making even less.
For now, Hodge is focused on the BHA’s project in Harpswell and the conversion of a school in Lisbon to provide subsidized senior housing. In addition to providing housing for those who might struggle to afford it otherwise, Hodge said those subsidy programs provide support for the local economy, with payments being made from the BHA directly to landlords.
“The financial benefits go to a private landlord who will be buying things like oil and maintenance material,” Hodge said. “There is a dual benefit to providing assistance to those working families that need it.”