January 25, 2020
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Poliquin mixes apples, oranges and real estate

If you’ve ever purchased property or thought of doing so, you’ve probably heard about the three things most related to price: location, location, location.

Where a property is — whether a home or commercial space — is hugely important for its value.

Thus it was odd to hear State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, while criticizing Maine State Housing, contend that $315,000 per new apartment unit in Portland was too expensive because an existing single-family home in Maine costs $159,000.

Breaking the heart of every Realtor who stressed the importance of location (location, location) and every fourth grade math teacher who instructed students not to compare apples and oranges, Mr. Poliquin shifted from the price of constructing a multi-unit apartment building in a very expensive part of the state to the average cost of an already-built homestead in Maine.

Now, according to September 2011 figures from the Maine Association of Realtors, indeed the average cost of a house in Maine is $159,000. But, say the Realtors, the cost of a house in Cumberland County, where Portland is located, is $229,450. These, of course, vary by neighborhood and by the size of and number of bedroomsin the house.

Moreover, it costs more to build a new property than to buy one that was built, as many of Maine’s houses were, decades ago. Apartments also have equipment that houses typically do not, such as elevators and sprinkler systems, and Maine Housing builds-in costs for repairs for decades to come.

Even putting these apples and oranges aside, because Maine Housing had insisted on reduced costs, the treasurer’s numbers were off by $50,000 per unit.

To be sure, it is important for government programs to be run with due diligence for quality and finances. And there are real policy questions about how to best to provide housing for low-income Maine people. All of this deserves an honest, open discussion. But we owe it to ourselves to insist on proper figures and to avoid obfuscation.

There has been an unfortunate strain in Maine involving skewed numbers. To take another case, before the vote that restored Election Day registration in Maine, a prominent conservative advocacy group produced a document replete with distorted data.

This document claimed that Maine’s voting system was broken because there were too many people on the rolls in 1992, 1996 and 2004. Not only are some of these years quite awhile ago, but here, too, we have very different items compared. In those years, Maine had not yet adopted its central voter registry, which assigns each voter a unique identifying number. If one moved from Millinocket to Machias back then, voters could be registered in more than one place. Now that Maine has its central voter registry, the situation is so different it isn’t even like apples and oranges, but more like blueberries and lobsters.

Famed journalist Walter Lippmann said news should provide a picture of reality on which citizens can act. The press has an important role to play, honestly sorting out purported research and political presentations and directly stating when figures are misleading. To be responsible citizens, people need reliable renderings of reality.

Everyone has some complaints with how the press operates. It does not perfectly achieve the goals of reporting clearly, accurately and fairly. Still, reporters and editors try to reach those goals every day, to operate, as publisher Adolph Ochs proclaimed in 1896, “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect or interests involved.”

Yet recently the conservative advocacy group that released the document with archaic voter data announced it would start a news service. This will be the only Maine news outlet supported by persons unknown. Given the recent history of financiers like Charles Koch who tried to shape law schools, the group’s funders are unlikely to pursue neutrality. Indeed, according to the organization’s director, this lack of transparency poses no problems because those encountering its reports will “understand the ideology that’s behind it.”

To be sure, until it can establish a record of even-handedness, the three most important things to know about this new venture are ideological location, location, location.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ASFried and read her blog at www.pollways.com.

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