May 21, 2018
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Time to transform MaineHousing

By Bruce Poliquin, Special to the BDN

As the debate about the cost of taxpayer-funded affordable housing in Maine continues, it’s important to remember three key points:

First, on any given night, nearly 800 of our fellow Mainers sleep at emergency shelters across the state. Thousands more greatly disadvantaged families wait for safe, warm affordable apartments to call home.

Second, during the past several years, the Maine State Housing Authority has funneled taxpayer dollars to finance the construction of 1,100-square-foot apartments costing up to $292,000 each; 16 of the 28 Maine Hall units in Bangor are 400-square-foot studio apartments costing $215,000 each.

Third, taxpayer dollars are shrinking, not growing.

MSHA plays a central role in addressing the shortage and high cost of affordable housing in Maine. It is a quasi-independent “instrumentality” of state government with 140 employees, a $14 million operating budget and $1.6 billion in outstanding bonds that it has sold to investors to fund some of its programs. Four of the nine voting board members have been recently appointed by Gov. Paul LePage to join me in more closely scrutinizing its operations.

Some advocates defend the unacceptably high cost to taxpayers of the once-proposed $314,000 Elm Terrace apartments by citing the expensive downtown Portland location. The new MSHA board believes that building a small number of expensive units anywhere is unfair to our most vulnerable families hoping for a safe place to live, and unfair to the taxpayers footing the bill.

Others downplay the high cost to build affordable housing by arguing that new construction today is more expensive than the market values of comparable existing structures. OK, then why not explore the possibility of modifying the less-costly current housing stock to provide safe apartments for those families in need, instead of building more expensive units from scratch?

Some criticize the comparison of nearly $300,000 “affordable” apartments to the $159,000 median single-family home price in Maine. Why shouldn’t Maine taxpayers know that they are paying for expensive low-income apartments which greatly exceed the falling values of their own homes? It’s their money.

On the Maine state Senate website, Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, supports urban development of low-income housing for convenience to employment opportunities, public transportation and public services. Two months ago I asked the MSHA staff to provide the board with the data showing where Maine families in need are located.

Maybe there are opportunities to build less costly apartments along bus lines just outside urban centers that are convenient to malls and other services. The board has yet to receive this information.

Sen. Schneider suggests that concerns about wasteful spending at MSHA be discussed with the Legislature. She has a point. The MSHA executive director is not accountable to any person or governing body for spending hard-earned taxpayer dollars in a cost-efficient way. The individual is appointed by the governor for a four-year term. During that period, the executive director does not report to or serve at the pleasure of the MSHA board. As a result, board members can ask questions and push for transparency but cannot provide taxpayers with the same oversight extended to every other quasi-independent authority.

MSHA plays an important role in addressing the shortage of truly affordable housing in Maine. Stretching every taxpayer dollar will enable state government to help more of our most vulnerable families move off waiting lists and into safe apartments, while being fair to the taxpayers who foot the bills.

To that end, I suggest that MSHA create financial incentives for developers to lower the cost per apartment, continue the board-initiated elimination of expensive and unnecessary building standards such as solar hot water heaters, explore less costly nontraditional housing to help the greatest number of disadvantaged families and require the executive director to report to its board, as at every other quasi-independent authority in Maine.

Let’s all work together to get this done for the deserving people of Maine. It’s long overdue.

Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s state treasurer.

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