In February, we questioned why the Birch Hill Apartments in Lewiston seemed to be falling apart.
The building was, after all, only a year old.
We also questioned why the units seemed, in some respects, poorly designed for the people they were built to house, the elderly.
And we questioned the cost: $4.5 million for a 20-unit apartment building, or about $225,000 per unit.
That’s why we fully support a Republican call in the Legislature for an independent review of the Maine State Housing Authority, also called MaineHousing.
Enough questions have been raised here and around the state that taxpayers deserve to fully understand how MSHA operates and funds its projects.
In October, a legislative committee directed the state’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, to conduct a performance audit of the agency.
While some say the Republicans on the committee have a political agenda, namely to replace the authority’s Democratic director, OPEGA has a track record of conducting tough but impartial reviews.
Earlier this year, OPEGA uncovered the alleged financial improprieties that led to the resignation of Maine Turnpike Authority executive Paul Violette.
While the Violette resignation got most of the attention from the media, the thorough OPEGA report also outlined ways in which the Turnpike Authority could improve its fiscal controls and gave it a clean bill of health for its most important practices.
We are certain OPEGA will be as thorough and fair with the Housing Authority audit.
MSHA most recently came under fire when a Portland construction proposal suddenly ballooned to $314,000 per unit.
Director Dale McCormick pulled the plug on the Elm Street project when the cost jumped from $8.5 million to $10.9 million, a 28 percent increase.
Republican State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin says MSHA typically approves such increases without question, and he has led an outspoken campaign to discredit the agency.
In his “Treasurer’s Blog” posted Thursday, Poliquin stepped up the attack.
“How can Maine taxpayers be expected to help pay for $314,000 ‘low-income’ apartments when the median single-family home sells for $159,000? Why should our fellow Mainers be asked to subsidize housing which they themselves cannot afford to live in?”
It’s a good question, but there may also be some good answers.
The complicating factor is that we, as a state, have previously decided to use publicly funded housing to tackle some other problems, such as preserving old buildings and keeping people living in our downtowns.
It would clearly cost less to build a new, stand-alone apartment on an empty lot in Minot than to restore a beautiful but old building in downtown Lewiston.
Yet crews have been working all summer on the “Healy Asylum” on Ash Street, building 32 apartments for seniors. The project is expected to cost $7.6 million, or about $237,000 per unit.
When the construction ends, we hope to be left with a restored, energy-efficient building in the middle of town where seniors are within walking distance of the library, hospital, stores, doctors and restaurants.
Was that worth the cost? We don’t know, and we hope a detailed OPEGA report will help us sort that out.
With the facts in hand, perhaps legislators can put aside their partisan agendas and have a frank, open discussion about the benefits and costs of subsidized housing in Maine.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.