AJO - A cluster of yellow, blue and salmon-colored homes recently sprouted in the desert here, just west of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style plaza and north of the New Cornelia Mine lookout.

And taxpayers paid millions of dollars for it.

The federal government spent, on average, more than $600,000 apiece to plan and build the 21 two- and three-bedroom houses and develop the surrounding area to attract U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel to live in this small former mining community. The new homes range in size from 1,276 to 1,570 square feet.

Most similar-size homes in Ajo, 120 miles west of Tucson in far western Pima County, sold last year for less than $100,000, according to a database maintained by the Arizona Daily Star.

Altogether, the government has paid $15 million for the homes plus 20 park-model trailers in Ajo, according to documents examined by The Arizona Republic.

The homes and trailers are available for CBP personnel and their families to rent at "market rates," though the agency declined to answer how much that is, citing privacy concerns.

A Border Patrol station is about 11 miles south in Why, and the Lukeville Port of Entry border crossing is about 38 miles away. Both the Border Patrol and Customs personnel work for CBP.

The buildup of federal agents on the border over the past several years has caused housing shortages in cities and towns throughout the Southwest, said Doris Meissner, who was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1990s and is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. But private industry has filled most needs, making the Ajo project - and the funding it received - atypical, she said.

"There may be a way to understand that," Meissner said. "On the face, it looks quite startling."

Tina West, a member of the Western Pima County Community Council, was even more blunt about the more than $2 million the government spent on the trailers.

"You could buy any house in town for $100,000," West said. "It's just another multimillion-dollar waste."

About 4,400 people live in Ajo. The median sale price for a single-family home in Ajo is $70,598, according to the Pima County Assessor's Office valuation chart, which used home-sale prices from 2010 to 2012 adjusted for current market conditions. Nearly 30 percent of area houses were vacant from 2007 to 2011, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Fewer than 30 percent of CBP employees assigned to the area rented housing in Ajo before the construction, according to a U.S. General Services Administration assessment for the CBP Sahuaro Street housing project. Many live in Phoenix, Tucson or Gila Bend and commute an hour or two to the border, which affects staff retention, according to the report.

CBP officials said in letters and reports that there is not enough quality housing for agents to live in the area and ramped up efforts to provide its own.

The most recent project is the development that opened in January on South Sahuaro Street. The GSA awarded Tempe-based Sundt Construction Inc. a contract in 2011 for $10,356,331 to build an enclave of 21 energy-efficient houses, as well as streets and sidewalks.

The houses received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum rating, according to the GSA. The site is about 11.6 acres and is zoned for an additional 25 houses.

Construction cost more than $11 million in all, according to an analysis of contracts by The Republic.

That total rises to about $13 million including all costs "spent or obligated to this project," wrote Robin Coachman, a CBP housing and project manager based in California, in a 2012 letter to the editor published in the Ajo Copper News.

There may have been a cheaper way to provide better options, said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., whose district includes Ajo. He said his office suggested renovating homes already in the area.

"I thought it would be good for agents coming in to be integrated into that part of the community," Grijalva said. "It would revitalize part of Ajo."

CBP's presence in the area has grown substantially in the last several years. The Ajo station was built in Why in 1987 for about 25 agents, according to CBP. A new station opened last year that can accommodate 500.

Ajo real estate agent Linda Sharp, 63, who rents to several CBP employees, said many agents lease cheap properties close to the border and live full time elsewhere, looking for better schools for their kids, job opportunities for their spouses and the energy of a city.

"Most of them are young," Sharp said. "They want a nightlife, and there's no life in Ajo."

"You could buy any house in town for $100,000. It's just another multimillion-dollar waste"

Tina West, member of Western Pima County Community Council