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 of our fellow Mainers sleep at emergency shelters across the state.

There is a serious shortage of affordable housing in Maine.

How can we stretch limited taxpayer dollars to help more of our most vulnerable citizens?

During the past several years, the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) has funneled state, federal and local tax dollars to finance the construction of low-income apartments costing up to $292,000 each.

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 Governor LePage.

Three weeks ago, the executive director approved the 38 Elm Terrace apartments, costing taxpayers $265,000 each.

The public debate about affordable housing in Maine is healthy.

Close examination will hopefully result in sorely needed changes.

As the process unfolds, it’s important to consider all sides of the issue.

On Dec. 11, a Maine Sunday Telegram editorial stated that “not a single dollar of taxpayer money from the state’s general fund will be spent on Elm Terrace.

“Instead, federal tax credits were awarded to a private developer, who used them to leverage private investment in a project that would not otherwise be built.”

MSHA uses taxpayer dollars in the form of both cash and state/federal tax credits paid to developers to build low-income housing.

Whether cash or a reduction of income taxes because of the tax credits, all of this money comes from those who pay federal, state and local taxes.

On Dec. 15, Sen. Joseph Brannigan, D-Portland, and Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, wrote an oped piece in The Portland Press Herald about the affordable housing issue.

They implied that Maine taxpayers fund only a portion of the total cost of the apartments financed by MSHA.

Regarding the expensive Elm Terrace units, they wrote that “for every dollar of state investment, Maine received $2.50 in outside dollars.”

Maine taxpayers also pay federal and local taxes, all of which are used to build low-income apartments.

Whether levied by Augusta, Portland or Washington, it’s all our hard-earned money.

Legislators Brannigan and Lovejoy support the restoration of historic buildings.

I agree.

When growing up in Waterville, I remember Main Street lined with old stately brick buildings.

Sadly, the 1960s urban renewal project 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.

I’m sometimes criticized for comparing the nearly $300,000 cost of an 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 have been paying for expensive low-income apartments which greatly exceed the falling values of their own homes?

It’s their money.

MSHA plays an important role in addressing the shortage of affordable housing in Maine.

Stretching every taxpayer dollar will enable state government to help more of our most vulnerable Mainers.

To that end, I suggest the following:

1. That MSHA create financial incentives for developers to lower the cost per apartment.

2. That MSHA continue the board-initiated elimination of expensive and unnecessary building standards, like solar hot water heaters.

3. That MSHA explore non-traditional strategies to provide the most cost efficient low-income housing.

4. That MSHA require the executive director to report to the board, as is done at every other quasi-independent authority.

As we start the new year, I encourage the MSHA staff and board to remember our stated mission: Use limited taxpayer dollars to move as many homeless and disadvantaged Maine families off waiting lists and into safe, warm apartments. That’s only fair to our most vulnerable citizens, and to the taxpayers footing the bill.

Bruce L. Poliquin is the Maine state treasurer.