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Is inspector a scapegoat?
NORWAY — "Kay does a great job ... Kay's knowledge of HUD [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] and MaineHousing (MH) regulations, policies and procedures are very good and she is a great resource to me in this area ... . She is committed to Avesta's and MH's missions... ."
So reads the August 3 performance evaluation for Kay Hawkins, the Section 8 HCV inspector for Avesta Housing. Hawkins was evaluated by Linda Poland, her supervisor, and the form was signed by two other Avesta administrators, including President Dana Totman.
And yet, on October 27 the day the story "Slumlords, shoddy oversight, tax dollars ... living on Section 8" was published, Hawkins was put on paid administrative leave. On Monday, October 31 after Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) finished inspecting the cited properties and others, she was fired.
The reason given for the firing, said Hawkins, was "that my work was not up to their standards."
But Hawkins, who has more than a decade of experience on the job, said that she has been getting high marks for working within the parameters that Avesta set for her.
MSHA inspectors found multiple violations in units that had been inspected by Hawkins just months and sometimes weeks, prior to the MSHA special inspection, according to paperwork obtained under Maine's Freedom of Access law.
So who is to blame? Was Hawkins simply a pawn in a process that is systemically fraught with problems? Is the problem with Avesta? With MSHA? Or do they all share the blame? And if so, is the solution to fire Hawkins instead of retraining her and assisting her to do better?
Hawkins, who is 68 years old, is distraught about the effect both the stories and her firing are having on her reputation. However, she agrees that the violations need to be addressed, and that tenants should not have to live in the conditions found in the properties cited in the articles.
"My reputation is important to me," said Hawkins. "I brought a lot to this ... job. I've been doing it 11 years. I was a code enforcement officer and I was a plumbing inspector, so I thought this job was perfect, because it fit."
"Amanda [Bartlett, MSHA HCV program officer] made the statement ... this year, that I was doing the best in the state of Maine. My computer work was impeccable. When I made mistakes, I asked, 'how do I fix this?' So this is [a] shock."
Hawkins started inspecting Section 8 properties when Community Concepts had the contract from MSHA to manage the housing voucher program. When Community Concepts lost the contract seven years ago and Avesta took over, Hawkins interviewed and was hired by Avesta to continue as a Section 8 inspector.
"I was very highly recommended to Avesta from Maine State Housing to hire me," said Hawkins. "All my evaluations have been perfect. Even last year, the quality of my work was high."
Hawkins went on to explain that MSHA also evaluated her annually by "spot reinspecting" 30 of the 634 units she inspects.
"Last year was my highest rating from Maine State Housing ever, and I was so proud."
Hawkins explained that there are three different kinds of inspections. The initial inspection happens when a property is rented by a Section 8 tenant. This inspection is to determine if the property is up to HUD standards.
An annual inspection is the second type and the third is an inspection prompted by tenant complaints.
Responding to charges from tenants that she had not given them copies of their inspection reports, Hawkins said that copies of all reports that had fails were given to the tenants.
"They should have them," insisted Hawkins. "This is fail items only. I've always only done the fails, because the passes are just a bunch of check marks. There's nothing on the passes, really."
But on the initial inspection, said Hawkins, the tenant does not get a copy.
"We are not required to do that," she said.
"But what we are required to do," she continued, "is on our annuals ..., when they fail, I send out a fail list and tell them what day I'm coming back. They get everything. The tenants and the landlords.
"If I was ever to do this again, I would write more, I would write more, I would write more."
With regard to inspections resulting from complaints, Hawkins said "They've [tenants] just called me and I've gone out and dealt with it."
Hawkins said that procedural changes, initiated by her supervisor, have limited her ability to respond quickly to tenant complaints.
Now, she said, "a tenant now has to call their worker, not me. The worker tells them, 'you need to send me a list of your complaints with a cc to your landlord.' When the worker gets it, she looks at it, and types the form up for me, attaches it to the complaints and gives it to me, and then I squeeze it in right away. … I know you need to respond to people and so I've always responded to complaints. I've squeezed them into my day even if I had to work late."
Who did what?
When asked about the unit of Susan, a renter featured in the article, Hawkins quickly pointed out that the initial inspection was not even done by her, but by her supervisor Linda Poland.
"That wasn't me," she said.
"Let's just take that issue. My supervisor did that inspection, the first one, the initial. She did the initial. I was out ... on vacation. I came in that Monday, and she said 'Kay, this initial failed, can you please go out and recheck it.' I said 'okay'. I went back, I went through her list, check, check, check, passed it."
When asked about Susan's fire escape, which was found to be sagging from the wall, Hawkins said she only reinspected what was on her list from her supervisor's initial inspection and the fire escape was not on it.
"The fire escape initial inspection was done by my supervisor when I was out."
"I didn't know about it. I didn't do any more than what my supervisor put on her [fail] list. I didn't look at it. I didn't know anything else about it. She did the initial. … She had done that inspection for me when I was out."
A ceiling hole at another apartment has been an ongoing cycle of repair and damage, according to Hawkins.
This unit was inspected, according to paperwork, on September 12, a few weeks after the hole had been photographed for the article. On October 28, MSHA reinspected the unit and found the same issues that appeared in the article.
"Yes, that has been a problem for two or three years now," Hawkins explained. "They say they've got the leak, they put a brand new ceiling up. After I leave, it's [the ceiling is] down.
"It was fixed. It was. It was fixed, and in a few days, it leaked again, and they pulled it down again.
"We had put that ceiling up so many times. When I saw that in the paper, I went rushing back to him. I said, 'oh no, it's down again. What's going on? [The tenant] said 'it leaked again'. I said, 'John, why don't you find another place?' When he moved in, I told him, I said, 'John, I've had problems in this place for leaking in different places in it.'"
HUD standards low
Hawkins said that HUD guidelines give a lot of leeway in deciding whether to pass or fail a unit.
"You read the examples they give and my gosh, they give so much leeway to pass or fail. The majority of them passed under HUD's regulations as moderate deterioration or nonhazardous items.
"As an inspector, we have to determine what falls under these two broad items with some guidance from examples they give in the rules.
"The standards I have to follow are bare minimum so as not to close out any possible rents for the tenants," she said.
"For me, I take my highest and best knowledge I have each day to make the decisions that would assure the tenants they had a safe and secure home. I am not perfect. Tenants' lifestyles, landlords' old buildings all come into play as part of the inspection results."
Hawkins said she was trained by Norway Fire Chief Dennis Yates and received her HQS certification in Rhode Island.
There are many important safety factors that she said she pays special attention to.
"Basically," she said, "it's smoke and carbon monoxide detectors need to work, plumbing works with no leaking, electrical has no fraying, hanging or splitting wires, no broken windows, some windows may be cracked and taped up instead of replacing ... electrical panels cannot have any missing breakers or fuses, no tripping hazards anywhere, no peeling paint inside or outside ...if there are children under six, all outlets checked for grounding ... .
"Because the standards are written so broad, the inspector makes many subjective decisions during the inspection. One apartment could be inspected by several inspectors and the results would never be identical."
Hawkins said that she made an effort to make sure that each apartment was judged correctly.
"If I couldn't smell the mold, I mean, I just ... maybe I made poor judgment calls, I don't know. Maybe I'm too – I don't know... but at that time and in that moment, it raced through my mind 'Do I pass it or don't?' And that's how it is, daily. What are the dangers? What are the safety issues?
"The big ones are those smoke detectors and wiring and stuff like that. But we aren't electricians. We just have to see the minimal wiring and I would not have let sparking things go."
Hawkins seemed very sad that she would not be part of the solution.
"I really was hoping to have been part of this complicated process of working to find solutions to all the problems talked about in the November 4th meeting [in Norway] and mentioned in the articles ... I know from my heart I would have been a valuable asset to this process ... I wish all the players much success in tackling this systemic problem which is everywhere."