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MSHA report addresses changes in oversight
AUGUSTA – The results of Maine State Housing Authority’s (MSHA) internal audit into Section 8 rental housing conditions was released Friday.
The report acknowledged that poor administrative oversight allowed poor housing conditions to exist in local Section 8 apartments, and recommended several changes to close reporting loopholes. Program administrators indicated that they are implementing all recommended changes to improve the program.
“To read in the Advertiser Democrat article about the deplorable substandard conditions in which people were living was unacceptable. It was clear to me that there was a failure in our system of quality control in the administration of the voucher program in Norway that allowed for these conditions to pass inspection,” said Dale McCormick, director of MSHA. “We are undertaking the bold changes that are required to address this problem, and will follow through on the recommendations outlined in the report.”
In December the MSHA Board of Directors questioned how the “disgusting conditions” – highlighted in the October 27 issue about Norway Section 8 tenants "Slumlords ..." – were allowed.
MSHA Board Chairman Peter Anastos called the properties “disgusting,” “lousy” and “horribly deficient.” Amanda Bartlett, program officer for MSHA, has been investigating the situation and the MSHA's internal audit manager, Linda Groton, compiled the report of what happened and how the problem came to be.
“We have completed 114 quality control inspections including the units featured in the article,” said Bartlett. “We continued to find deficiencies and high fail rates but not as many safety-type things as we were initially finding [in the cited units].
Avesta Housing, which administers the Section 8 program in Oxford County, employed inspector Kay Hawkins, who had previously worked for another group that did the same inspections in the area. Hawkins had been inspecting such properties in the area for about 11 years, said Bartlett. Hawkins was fired by Avesta after the story was published.
“The bottom line was this was a rogue inspector,” said Groton.
“Everyone was blindsided by this; everyone was appalled,” she said. “This inspector was a very trusted employee.”
Anastos, however, said he’s heard that town officials have said the problems were ongoing for years.
“It stretches the imagination that we shouldn’t have known about it,” he said.
Board member Donald F. Capoldo, Jr., toured some of the units with Bartlett. He said that a grandson of the landlord – who was a felon and had been convicted of murder – had been harassing tenants in the apartments, “putting fear into the people who lived there.”
“I am a 6-foot male … and I was afraid … .”
Bartlett said the tenants she interviewed “were essentially living in their units in fear … being held hostage in their units,” afraid Pratt would evict them or the grandson harass them. They were “so paralyzed by fear” that they wouldn’t call Avesta or MSHA, because they didn’t know they could complain, or they were too scared, she said. “In fact, [Pratt] has a history of evicting tenants. If they complain about her or their unit they are evicted the same day.”
Board members agreed they were pleased that Pratt had been debarred from participation in the housing voucher program.
“These were the worst of the worst,” said Capoldo, “and if you don't go back [to reinspect] the worst of the worst ... what do you do about the others?”
“If you are 91 years old [as Pratt is] and you have had these units for years and you are not even fixing things up – you are making a fortune, an absolute fortune,” noted one board member.
Capoldo suggested that even if Avesta or MSHA was unaware, “there was an atmosphere where it was allowed.”
Capoldo said he thought it was “quite possible” Avesta officials knew what was happening in the area, but didn’t want to shut down landlords and put people on the streets.
Groton said in hindsight, there were some “red flags” that both Avesta and the housing authority should have noticed but that there was no one person who saw the whole picture, and who could connect the dots.
The agency will change some of its processes to catch any potential problems in the future, according to the report. It plans to phase out Section 8 contracts with outside agencies statewide and bring the entire program in-house.
Avesta has already given back its inspection responsibilities in Oxford and Androsoggin counties to MSHA. Avesta is still in charge of inspections in Cumberland and York countiesbut according to the report that, too, will eventually be phased out.
"We understand it. We approve of it. People will be served well by it," said Avesta President Dana Tottman.
Tottman explained "We needed to hire an inspector [to replace Hawkins]. MSHA has a number of inspectors available. If we brought a new inspector in now, trained them, that's a long process and the contract is uncertain."
"We have 70 developments with 1,700 apartments," he continued, noting his dismay at what happened in Norway. "We put the name Avesta in front of them. We expect landlords to provide the kind of standards that we as landlords provide."
"It's not what our mission is," added Deborah Keller, Avesta program director, "and not what we stand for."
The report notes that there will be an increase in the frequency of quality control inspections from annually to quarterly and also an increase in the number of units inspected.
Dale McCormick, executive director of the housing authority, said the authority also would pay special attention to landlords who have more complaints against them than is the norm, and will inspect those properties more often. Had that been in place, McCormick said, the housing authority may have caught the problems in the Norway area a year earlier.
"I really hope," said McCormick, "that as part of the inspection process the use of digital cameras are encouraged. If any of those photos that she [A. M. Sheehan] took had shown up we would have said 'oh my god'."
“I believe that it [the story] sparked many different organizations around the state to look at what they've done – the fire marshal, code enforcement officers, the towns – we have an obligation to report to everyone what we have discovered,” said McCormick.
Avesta issued a statement supporting the audit report, stating that the root cause of the problem was with the landlords and a "rogue inspector" and noting that both MSHA and Avesta, when learning of the problem through the newspaper article, "took immediate steps to find safe housing for tenants and remove landlords from eligibility in the Section 8 voucher program, terminate its relationship with the inspector and undertake a top-to-bottom review of its practices and procedures to ensure this unacceptable situation does not happen again."
Avesta went on to thank the Advertiser Democrat for "shining a light on the conditions in these apartments before they caused a serious injury or loss of life."
Changes directed by MSHA audit
AUGUSTA — The internal audit report recommended many changes in the way MSHA administers the federal housing voucher program. Among the changes, MaineHousing will:
• Phase out Section 8 contracts with outside agents statewide and bring the entire program in-house, starting with Avesta. MaineHousing will begin by administering the program in Oxford and Androscoggin counties;
• Implement procedural changes for inspections, and increase the number of inspections to a level that is greater than what is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development;
• Conduct quarterly housing inspector meetings to discuss laws, issues, and concerns. Currently MaineHousing conducts meetings for our agents that include inspection-related topics with the expectation that housing inspectors are informed of those changes;
• Require housing inspectors to log complaints in a tracking log that will be reviewed monthly by MaineHousing;
• Formalize ongoing education about the Section 8 program for tenants, landlords, and local officials. This includes educating Section 8 recipients on what to do if a landlord is not responsive to their concerns and what landlords should do if tenants cause damage to a property that can result in an inspection failure;
• Provide tenants with a questionnaire during annual inspections that includes questions on whether they feel threatened or unsafe in their homes;
• Organize housing fairs statewide, where Section 8-related questions by tenants, landlords, and town officials are answered and where tenants can meet with landlords to learn about vacancies.
• Partner with local fire, police, and code enforcement officials to ensure the health and safety of tenants.
Pre-audit actions by MSHA
After the newspaper report brought the situation to MaineHousing’s attention, MaineHousing employees:
• Inspected, with Avesta, the units and gave the landlords 24-hour and 30-day repair notices on items that failed during the inspection;
• Rescinded one landlord’s ability to accept Section 8 vouchers for her properties;
• Provided new Section 8 vouchers to the affected tenants so that they could move, if they choose, from the properties;
• Coordinated a housing fair in which tenants, landlords, and town officials could ask questions about the Section 8 program and provide an opportunity for tenants and landlords to meet and discuss housing availability;
• Provided tenants with information on tenants’ rights and on how to contact MaineHousing with concerns if they feel landlords are not taking health and safety issues seriously.