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While tens of thousands go without assistance, Maine Housing spends millions on advertising

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Homelessness is a problem often associated with bigger cities, but frequently overlooked in small, rural states like Maine. But the numbers here are scary.

Recent debate over the cost of building affordable housing units and questionable expenditures at the state’s housing authority has brought to light the startling number of Maine people that are without housing. Affordable housing representatives and the press routinely state the number of people who are on waiting lists for housing is around 6,500.

That number may actually represent only half the problem. A study done by The Maine Center for Economic Policy in 2008, commissioned and paid for by the Maine State Housing Authority, showed there may be as many as 11,500 Mainers who are on one or more waiting lists for housing assistance. The report also notes that over 7,000 homeless people stay in one shelter or another during the course of a year.

Similarly, low income heating assistance (LIHEAP) is in great demand, with fewer resources to provide for the needy. In 2011, roughly 70,000 Maine households received assistance heating their homes. A large number of households were served, but, due to a lack of funding, not even half of the 155,000 that were eligible actually received benefits. That means 85,000 families in need of heating assistance didn’t get it last year, and this year, federal cuts to the LIHEAP program will undoubtedly mean even fewer families are helped.

The MaineHousing director herself recently stated in a video interview that more resources were needed to help with heating assistance or “people would die.”

Despite this obvious and overwhelming need for housing and heating assistance, MaineHousing, the state agency in charge of both, has racked up millions of dollars in recent years on marketing and advertising efforts.

Despite nearly 100,000 Maine households on waiting lists for housing or heating help, MaineHousing has spent $2,258,427 on marketing and advertising since 1998 with just four companies. That figure does not include thousands more spent on newspaper ads and additional advertising in other publications.

Most recently, MaineHousing contracted with Burgess Advertising & Marketing, a Portland company. Between 2009 and 2010 MaineHousing paid Burgess a total of $116,630 for advertising services. The president and CEO of Burgess Advertising & Marketing is Meredith Strang Burgess, a third-term Republican Representative in the Maine legislature.

The most extensive advertising bills were racked up by MaineHousing between 2005 and 2008 with Lapchick Creative, a now-defunct advertising firm from Portland. In just four years, MaineHousing paid Lapchick $716,936, with $313,253 of that coming in 2006 alone.

Lapchick Creative shut their doors in late 2008, at the time blaming the slowing economy. Since then, Jodie Lapchick, the chief artistic director for Lapchick Creative, has opened her own firm, Lapchick & Co. which specializes in “cause marketing” according to their website. Lapchick also touts on her site that she is a “long-standing member of Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility…Maine Women’s Fund’s Women Standing Together, and many cause-related social networking groups.”

Lapchick may be better known for her recent bid to become the mayor of Portland. The mayoral race had 15 candidates. Lapchick finished last, with 133 total votes.

Prior to Lapchick, MaineHousing contracted primarily with NL Partners, another Portland-based firm. Between 2002 and 2005 MaineHousing spent $692,424 on advertising with NL Partners.

From 1998 – 2001, the oldest data available from MaineHousing, the primary advertising firm was McClain Hauptman Marketing Group, now McClain Marketing + Interactive, another Portland-based firm that also operates in New York. McClain received $732,438 from MaineHousing in four years.

One could argue that advertising is necessary to make sure the public is aware of the services offered. In this case however, the crowded waiting lists suggests that additional marketing is less pertinent than the service itself – which the MaineHousing Director herself has trumpeted as being underfunded.
The total of more than $2.2 million for advertising directly impacted Maine Housing’s ability to provide for needy Mainers. Instead of spending millions to try to create more awareness for the services it offers, this funding could have been spent filling the unmet need of thousands of families.

MSHA’s advertising budget could have covered the average cost of heating assistance benefits for roughly 215 additional families each year, or 2,580 over the past 13 years.

The Board of Commissioners of the Maine State Housing Authority meets Tuesday for its monthly meeting. Recent revelations of exorbitant expenditures, including marketing and advertising, will likely be discussed at length, as the Board continues to grapple with a puzzling pattern of spending priorities at the quasi-state agency.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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