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Local Avesta office closing
NORWAY — Avesta Housing is closing its Norway and Saco offices on March 31; the agency lost its contract to administer the Section 8 housing program after many serious health and safety violations in Oxford County apartments came to light.
"The office is closing on March 31," said Debora Keller, Avesta's director of programs.
Maine State Housing Authority will take over all operations of the program beginning March 15.
"MaineHousing and Avesta have been working closely hand in hand to make sure that the transition will go smoothly and minimize the impact on residents," said Keller.
Avesta is one of 17 agencies that are sub-contracted by Maine State Housing Authority to process applications and inspect apartments for those who receive subsidized housing under the federal Section 8 program.
According to Keller, tenants and landlords received mailings notifying them of the change, which she said is going "very smoothly."
"There's been a slight increase in calls," she said.
The notices to tenants, which are also listed on the organization's website, say that, until March 31, "it is business as usual at Avesta Housing in Norway, Maine. ... This transition does not affect your housing subsidy."
MSHA is taking over the operations of the Norway office in phases. It has conducted unit inspections since January 1, and will begin making rent and utility payments on March 1.
Tenants who wish to move or report changes in their living circumstances should contact MSHA beginning March 15.
Landlords are required to complete a new W-9 form, and will receive future checks from MaineHousing, rather than Avesta.
Avesta's Norway office, located on Paris Street, has three full-time employees, and serves all of Oxford and Androscoggin counties.
The Saco office has four employees, and serves York and Cumberland counties.
Keller said that seven employees would be lost as a result of the contract change.
"The loss of the administration of the program is forcing a reduction in workforce for us," said Keller.
Linda Poland, a resident of Turner, said that she began working in Norway as Avesta's Section 8 Program Supervisor in July of 2010.
"I've loved working here," she said. "I didn't know Oxford County very well when I started. I've gotten very fond of it."
A fourth employee, inspector Kay Hawkins, was fired in the wake of a report published by the Advertiser Democrat in October that revealed that many local apartment units were being approved despite serious code violations.
Soon after being fired, Hawkins said that Poland had personally signed off on some of the safety violations in local apartments.
An internal investigation by MSHA made no mention of Poland specifically, although it did say that there were "red flags," and that no one in the administrative chain had pieced together enough information to identify the widespread problem.
Keller said that Poland and the other employees were part of a workforce reduction, not a firing.
"We regret the loss of these valued employees, but we do support MaineHousing’s decision to take over the administration of the program statewide in order to increase efficiency," she said.
Poland said that she has enjoyed a good working relationship with other entities in the area that provide services for area residents.
"I really enjoyed working with Norway, South Paris, Rumford, all the towns in the area," she said. "There are good people, and a good support system in place as far as the town offices and the churches and the different providers that are around here to try to help the low-income people."
Keller said that Poland would be contacting other groups to make sure that they are aware of the change.
"Linda will be reaching out to social service agencies to let them know," said Keller.
In January, MSHA indicated that it plans to terminate its agreements with all 17 subcontractors, one of many reforms implemented after an internal investigation was conducted to discover how the conditions had been allowed to exist, despite regular inspections of the units.
Donna White, a spokesperson for HUD, said that the federal review will ensure that all necessary reforms are made.
"We are currently working with the agency [MSHA] on a Corrective Action Plan and corresponding implementation schedule for its entire portfolio to ensure that every step possible is taken to prevent this from happening again," she said.
"We know MSHA has been working to fix the deficiencies, but HUD was still dismayed at the conditions of the units profiled," said White.
Avesta's Paris Street office has been handling Section 8 in Oxford County for seven years, before which Community Concepts administered the program locally.