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Inspections find 96 violations in 10 units
AREA — In the wake of revelations about unsafe rental housing conditions in the area, a handful of reinspections conducted by state officials in Norway and Paris on October 28 has uncovered a total of 96 safety violations in 10 different Section 8 Housing rental units.
The violations include various fire hazards, cutting hazards, a flea infestation, multiple rodent infestations, water leaks, exposed hot pipes, windows that won't open, windows that won't close, windows with broken panes, light fixtures that overheat, holes in ceilings, a fire escape bolted to deteriorating wood, bathroom floors with black mold and mildew, persistent ceiling leaks, nonworking outlets, and units that are insecure because various previous tenants still possess the keys to them.
"Tenant states that sheetrock being used to repair ceiling has been left outside and is soaked with animal urine," read the report on one building owned by Madeline Pratt. "Landlord must use sanitary materials for all repairs."
A single Pratt-owned unit had 21 violations; no unit had fewer than four violations.
The buildings that house the units range in age from 70 to 110 years old. Of the units that were inspected, seven belong to Madeline Pratt; two to Gordon Bryant, and one to Vincent Marcisso, doing business as Western Highlands LLC.
The large number of violations, and the fact that not a single unit passed the October 28 special inspection process, suggests a widespread lack of compliance with federal health and safety guidelines among Section 8 rental units in the area.
The special inspections were conducted by Amanda Bartlett and Dick Sawyer of the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) and Avesta Housing. The programs administer the area's Section 8 housing program, which subsidizes rent payments for low-income tenants.
"This is part of a reinspection plan of all the units under our watch," Bartlett said during a public meeting in Norway held to discuss solutions to the substandard housing. "We've started that last Friday in partnership with Maine Housing. It will continue until we've reinspected as many units as we need to in order to feel everyone is safe."
"We are in the middle of developing a reinspection plan," said Bartlett. "We are prioritizing [the reinspections] based on those that might be in the high-risk category." Bartlett noted that those units mentioned in the October 27th article were at the top of the list. This account for some 15 inspections beginning October 28.
"We are still in the process of developing the [action] plan," she continued. "We are putting all our resources on it."
Barlett said the next round of inspections amount to some 15 or 16 units all owned by the same core group of landlords cited in the article.
Many of the violations were relatively minor, such as missing globes for light bulbs, and stoves with burners that did not work.
However, most of the units had "24-hour fail items," which required immediate attention because they were considered to be life-safety issues.
Of the 10 units that were inspected, eight had life-safety violations that needed to be fixed by landlords within 24 hours. Six of those eight passed additional reinspections 24 hours later; the other two failed. Both failed units are in Madeline Pratt-owned buildings.
As of November 1, Pratt will no longer receive Section 8 Housing Assistant Payments (HAP) for those two units, but the tenants will still be responsible for their portion of the rent.
However, said Bartlett, MSHA sat down with the tenants of the failed units and walked them through their options which included informational moving packets and a voucher that enables the tenants to take their Section 8 to another apartment.
Additionally, although MSHA "typically does not have a housing counseling component," said Bartlett, "in this case we will try and help them all we can."
Bartlett noted that MSHA is also looking into the amounts the tenants are paying directly to the landlords under the headings of electric and dumpster payments, as these cannot exceed or conflict with the original lease terms unless a series of preordained steps have been followed. MSHA is also looking into the circumstances of those tenants who say they have been without any electricity for months.
Violations that are not 24-hour fail items must be fixed within 30 days, Bartlett informed each landlord in a written letter. If a unit is not fully compliant after the 30 days, Avesta will stop paying for that unit. If the unit fails another reinspection program 30 days after that, the unit will be removed from the Section 8 program altogether.
Another round of inspections on these units will take place on November 22.
As of November 7, however, Norway Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman has not received copies of any of the inspections reports from these special inspections. Nor has she been notified of the failed reinspections of the 24-hour fail items.
The way the Norway rental housing ordinance is currently written, even if she had been notified, there is nothing Corey-Whitman could do quickly.
"I would have to present them to the Board of Selectmen under the Dangerous and Nuisance [buildings] ordinance, send a certified letter to the landlord and if they fail to sign for that then I would have to post a public notice for three weeks and hold a public hearing... ."
Corey-Whitman is working on revamping the town ordinance to address such problems in order to protect Norway's tenants.
Bartlett said at the meeting that the reinspection process would extend beyond the immediate area.
"The inspections are not just in this town," she said. "We will be inspecting ... all of the vouchers that we administer... ."
The inspection reports also document multiple tenant reports of a failure to plow snow in the driveways during the winter, which could restrict access to emergency service vehicles.
According to the letter that Bartlett sent to the landlords, tenants can be held responsible for damages that they have caused themselves.
"If there is damage caused by the tenant that is more than normal wear and tear, the tenant is responsible for making the repairs, or reimbursing you for the cost of those repairs," read the letter. Tenants who fail to live up to that obligation may be terminated from the Section 8 housing program altogether.
However, the inspection reports indicate that the responsible party for each of the 96 violations was found to be the owner of the building.
Greg Payne, a development director for Avesta, said that Section 8 provides a valuable service to the country.
"The Section 8 housing voucher program has stabilized lives all throughout the country," said Payne. "There are people who have gotten vouchers, who have stabilized and moved on to school, and gotten off Section 8. It happens all the time."
Payne also said that Avesta is committed to resolving the issue, as the organization moves to ensure the safety of tenants who rely on their inspections for safe housing conditions. The second stage of the process, said Avesta officials, will involve a re-examination of the policies and procedures that allowed the conditions to pass inspection in the first place.
"It's an important program," said Payne. "It has flaws, and clearly, here's one that happened here that we need to fix, and Avesta's going to be here for the long term, making sure we fixed it."
Bartlett expressed similar sentiments, noting that she would continue to investigate because "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night until this is all fixed."