Though the recession largely was caused by poor banking practices, abetted by a federal government loathe to look closely at a booming sector of the economy, housing often was blamed as the culprit. Housing then became a victim of the recession.
The chilly housing market has ramifications far beyond the demise of the infamous subprime mortgages and derivatives. It means there is less mobility within the housing hierarchy. It means the poorer among us are more at the mercy of landlords who can charge what they want, because there is less housing to go around.
When housing starts are down, the job-rich trades — carpenters, foundation contractors, roofers, electricians, plumbers, earthwork contractors and well drillers — all get hurt. So do lumber yards and home centers. State revenues also take a hit. One of the top two sales tax generators is building materials.
For these reasons and others, the State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, the LePage administration and its allies in the Maine Heritage Policy Center should tread lightly as they seek to pry open the inner workings of MaineHousing, the quasi-state agency whose mission is promoting the availability of affordable housing.
It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see that the treasurer, the administration and MHPC are hoping to find the kind of abuse and waste that critics say were rampant at the Maine Turnpike Authority, another quasi-state agency. MHPC was aggressive in securing the list of salaries at MaineHousing through the freedom of information law; this is fair game, and allows people to make their own judgments about the level of compensation at the agency. But there was no smoking gun, no cache of gift cards.
Mr. Poliquin has been single-minded in his opposition to the state reliance on bond funding. In March, he proposed legislation that would have required voter approval for bonds issued by quasi-state agencies such as MaineHousing. Thankfully, the proposal was panned by legislators of both parties.
But Mr. Poliquin remains focused on MaineHousing. As does MHPC. Their vigilance, presumably in the name of accountability and efficiency, risks hampering one of the few state agencies that can spur economic activity and create jobs while helping people find safe affordable housing.
MaineHousing serves 90,000 people and oversees 70,000 transactions annually. Its director Dale McCormick, a former state treasurer, argues that MaineHousing is an important distributor of federal funds that help Mainers. The agency shepherds programs from the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, and Health and Human Services. Its employees are paid by federal money or by revenue from its bonds.
The agency, which was formed in 1969 to insulate taxpayers from the responsibility of repaying bonds, handles billions of dollars in housing loans, weatherization funds and low-income heating assistance. Put another way, MaineHousing invests $1.2 million daily in the state economy.
In the midst of what may be a return to a receding economy, MaineHousing is now building 13 housing projects that will result in 326 affordable rental units around the state, which will create about 320 full-time equivalent jobs, pumping about $64 million into the state economy.
Creating more housing stock is critical to both short-term economic growth and to creating economic mobility among the state’s labor force.
The scrutiny the state treasurer, governor and the state’s leading conservative advocacy group are bringing to bear on MaineHousing is certainly within their purview. But if the motivation for this scrutiny is to ultimately neuter or weaken the agency, Mainers deserve an open and honest discussion of that goal before it becomes a fait accompli.