Building more, less-costly apartments with limited taxpayer dollars would provide more construction jobs.

One of the most important responsibilities of state government is to help vulnerable Maine families. Approximately half of all tax dollars spent to do so flows from the federal government. With Washington’s career politicians having spent the nation $15 trillion in debt, it is likely that fewer federal tax dollars will be heading this way.

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition reports that thousands of homeless and greatly disadvantaged Maine families wait for safe, warm, affordable apartments. On any given night, nearly 800 fellow Mainers sleep at emergency shelters across the state. There is a serious shortage of affordable housing in Maine.

During the past several years, the Maine State Housing Authority has funneled federal, state and local tax dollars to finance the construction of low-income apartments costing up to $292,000 per unit. The Elm Terrace units in Portland were recently budgeted to cost $314,000 each. The project was stalled in September because of increased scrutiny by me and four new MSHA board members appointed by Gov. Paul LePage. Three weeks ago, the executive director approved the 38 Elm Terrace apartments at a cost to taxpayers of $265,000 each.

I believe that all public officials can agree on at least one important point: Building a small number of expensive units is unfair to those families desperately in need of a safe place to call home, and unfair to the taxpayers who foot the bill. Even so, I’ve been surprised by the efforts to defend the status quo.

In a Sun Journal guest column on Dec. 9, State Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, stated that “costs have been controlled so successfully that the MaineHousing-funded portion of multifamily projects is the same as it was prior to 2006.” Maine taxpayers also pay federal and local taxes, all of which are used to build the MSHA low-income apartments. All of it is our hard-earned money. It doesn’t grow on trees.

Some criticize comparing the nearly $300,000 cost of a 1,100-square-foot “affordable” apartment to the $159,000 median price of a 2,000-square-foot single-family home 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 Dec. 15, State Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, and Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, penned a column in the Portland Press Herald about the affordable housing issue. They support the restoration of historic buildings. So do I.

When growing up in Waterville, I remember Main Street being lined with old, stately, brick buildings. Sadly, the 1960s urban renewal brought the wrecking ball to many of those priceless pieces of our history and culture.

But, if it costs too much to construct low-income apartments in historic buildings, let private developers build luxury condominiums and prime office space there. Also, building more and less costly apartments with limited taxpayer dollars will provide more badly needed construction jobs than building a smaller number of expensive units.

Some support 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.

MSHA plays an important role in addressing the shortage of truly affordable housing in Maine. Refocusing its efforts to stretch every taxpayer dollar will help move more of the most vulnerable families off the waiting lists, out of homeless shelters and into safe, affordable apartments.

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 options; and require the executive director to report to the board, the same as every other quasi-independent authority in Maine.

Doing good doesn’t mean doing it at any cost. Let’s use common sense and transparency to help the most vulnerable among us, while being accountable to the taxpayers who pay the bills.

Bruce Poliquin of Georgetown is Maine State Treasurer.

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