AUGUSTA — New members of Maine State Housing Authority’s board criticized the agency’s staff Tuesday for approving what they contend are costly affordable housing developments. They said some of the authority’s priorities — such as emphasizing the use of green energy sources — need to be re-evaluated.

“If our mission is to provide as much affordable housing as possible to people in need in the state of Maine, then the cost of building those units is absolutely critical to meeting our objective,” said State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, a board comissioner. “I agree with (board chair) Peter (Anastos) that Maine State Housing has failed miserably in controlling costs.”

The Board of Commissioners for the agency, also known as MaineHousing, spent about 90 minutes at Tuesday’s meeting discussing the Elm Terrace project — a 35-unit development on High Street in Portland — and efforts to contain its costs and those of other affordable-housing developments.

Some members said MaineHousing needs to focus on its core mission of maximizing resources to provide affordable housing and to separate that mission from other goals, such as historic preservation and promoting green energy.

They said the high cost of renovating historic buildings has driven up budgets for some recent projects, including the 35-unit Gilman Place in Waterville, a former high school with a per-unit cost of $292,312.

MaineHousing Executive Director Dale McCormick said some of Poliquin’s statements about MaineHousing’s work are untrue or misleading. The agency has instituted several cost controls since she took over in 2005, she said.

“There’s a lot of heat and not too much light here,” she said.

McCormick said she has demanded that Elm Terrace’s developer, Community Housing of Maine, reduce the development’s proposed cost from $314,000 per unit to $265,000 per unit. Community Housing of Maine’s response will go to MaineHousing’s loan committee soon.

Officials with Community Housing of Maine said they can outline seven ways to bring down the cost of Elm Terrace. MaineHousing spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte referred questions about the details to the developer. Community Housing of Maine Executive Director Cullen Ryan did not respond to messages Tuesday.

MaineHousing funnels state, federal and private money to developers of affordable housing. Besides Elm Terrace, four developments in the past three years have exceeded $270,000 in per-unit costs, according to MaineHousing.

MaineHousing Commissioner Lincoln Merrill Jr. said that doesn’t pass the “straight-face test” when his daughter and his employees at Patriot Insurance in Yarmouth are struggling and pay taxes to support such projects.

“When you talk to these folks and say that we’re building subsidized housing projects … that are better than the places they’re living in, I have a real hard time with that,” he said.

Merrill suggested that moving people into vacant houses would be more cost-effective than building new or renovating buildings.

MaineHousing awards give preference to projects in downtown areas that have amenities nearby, but Poliquin said the agency should focus on putting developments on bus lines or outside cities.

“We all know there’s a lot of rural poverty in Maine,” he said. “It would be wise for our board to embrace affordable housing in parts of the state other than downtown areas.”

Anastos, the board’s chair, said MaineHousing has put too much emphasis on social and green-energy policy. The scoring process for applications should award points for lower-cost projects and deduct them for high-cost projects, he said.

McCormick countered that developers the agency chooses have never been required to pay union wages and that solar water heaters are no longer required, she said. An incentive to provide health insurance to construction workers also has been eliminated, she said.

McCormick said comparing multi-family development costs to those for single-family homes is misleading. Multifamily units have to meet higher standards, including pre-funding major capital repairs, installing fire sprinklers and elevators and providing handicapped accessibility.

MaineHousing has reduced the cost of new construction projects since 2006, McCormick said. In addition, the use of the state historic tax credit, in place since 2008, reduces the amount MaineHousing pays for historic rehabilitation projects to below the cost of new construction, she said.

Board members Poliquin and Don Capoldo questioned the use of historic properties for affordable housing, but board member Sheryl Gregory spoke in favor of it.

Gregory said the $180,078-per-unit Sullivan School project in Berwick shows that developments in historic buildings don’t necessarily cost a lot.

Finding new uses for those buildings benefits surrounding neighborhoods, she said, and tenants benefit from having access to shopping and medical facilities in the community.

“You can build a ticky-tacky building out in the hinterlands for next to nothing,” Gregory said. “Will it be there in 20 years? I don’t know. It depends on how strong the wind is on a given day.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at: [email protected]