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Norway tackles rental housing
SPEAKING OUT — Local business owner Pattie Thomas speaks before the crowd of about 75 about the poor housing conditions in Norway. Chris Fitch, standing, back right, was accused of threatening residents after the publication of an article spotlighting illegal conditions in buildings owned by his grandmother.
NORWAY — Representatives from the town of Norway, Avesta Housing, and the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) all made firm commitments to clean up unsafe housing conditions for low-income tenants during a public meeting that drew about 75 attendees on Friday afternoon.
Tenants and landlords traded accusations of responsibility for many of the conditions that were documented two weeks ago in an article by the Advertiser Democrat.
Multiple tenants reported that they have been bullied, threatened, and harassed by landlords since the article was first published.
Many of the unsafe conditions were found in apartments that had been inspected by Avesta on behalf of MSHA, which administers the federal Section 8 housing program for low-income tenants, but Greg Payne, a development officer for Avesta Housing, said that the problem went beyond Section 8 housing.
"There's a housing condition problem in Norway and in many other towns," he said. "This is not a Section 8 program problem ... only. Clearly something broke down here in the Section 8 program, but the ... whole is the substandard housing problem. They [the units] should have been inspected; the inspector should have failed them, clearly. But it's a wider problem than Section 8."
Norway Town Manager David Holt said that the town would revisit a policy of not inspecting apartments that fell under Section 8.
"The town doesn't do them if Avesta does. That's part of our ordinance," said Holt. " ... We gave that up to Avesta because the landlords were complaining to us, because they had to go through multiple inspections. Based on the evidence, that needs to change."
Norway's Code Enforcement Officer, Joelle Corey-Whitman, said that part of the problem lies in differing inspection standards between the town, the State Fire Marshal, and the federal requirements of HUD.
"What we're gonna try to do is get all on the same page, so it makes it easier for landlords to work with us," said Corey-Whitman. She also called for volunteers to help her revise the town's rental properties ordinance.
It is expected that a revised ordinance will be presented to voters during a town meeting in June.
"We not only have this problem here in Norway," said resident Shirley Allen Hill. "It's more in Oxford Hills. It is in South Paris. It is in some of these other surrounding communities. I think what Norway is doing right now is at least stepping up to the plate and looking at this, and we need to give ourselves a little bit of a pat on the back that we are willing to address it, and hopefully we will be a model for other communities to address this as well."
Norway resident Jim Boyce expressed concern that local units had passed inspections under Section 8 requirements.
"How did it get this bad if you inspect these?" he asked. "That's pretty sad."
Peter Merrill, a planning director for MSHA, said that the organization was unaware that such conditions existed in local Section 8 rental units.
"We have an agent doing inspections for us, and so we had not heard that," he said. "... We hired Avesta to handle the inspections. ... We were not aware."
Avesta performs annual inspections of Section 8 units as part of its contract with MSHA.
"It's paid by people's tax dollars," said resident Sally Leighton. "Our money isn't being wisely spent. If your program or another program had gone in once a year, once a month [this shouldn't have happened]. ... These apartments got passed."
Merrill pledged to address the issue with a two-stage process, in which tenant safety would first be assured through reinspections, and then procedures would be re-examined to prevent future violations.
"Clearly something went horribly wrong," he said. "There's no question about it. The very first priority is the health of the tenants. ... Second, how did this happen? How did we not know it happened? How did Avesta not know it happened? There are systems in place. There are books and manuals this thick about how to do this. ... What happened?"
The day after the story was published, inspectors from both organizations conducted a series of reinspections on 10 units in Norway and Paris.
Corey-Whitman said that the reinspection would be expanded to include every unit of every Section 8 voucher holder in Norway.
Fire Chief Dennis Yates, who is also a former HUD inspector himself, said that the federal codes fall short of state fire safety codes."Some of their standards are very, very [minimal]."
Yates said that there needs to be a system in which multiple entities check the units, and pointed to the fire at the Main Street rooming house. "Any other situation, we could have had multiple fatalities in that building."
Many residents saw the poor housing conditions as a sign of a larger problem in the community.
In an emotional moment, local business-owner Pattie Thomas said that, after 21 years of working on Main Street, she was upset at the thought of the dilapidated structures and the neglect that they represent.
"It really makes me angry to think we've let this go to this. This is our town. This is our Main Street. ... I'm not willing to sit by and let these houses fall in. ... We need it back. We need our Main Street back. And we need it starting today."
Andrea Burns of Norway Downtown said that people feel insecure in Norway's Main Street area, which she described as a "huge concern."
Thomas predicted that the situation will result in a tragedy if it is not addressed.
"Someone is going to die in a fire here. And it may be more than one."
"I'd like to have some of these landlords go into these buildings and stay," said Boyce. "... See how long they'd live in those standards. It's pretty barbaric."
"Is it legal to own and run a tenement that's incredibly substandard where you're collecting rents from people?" asked Scott Berk of Café Nomad. "Is it legal? ... It just seems like this is something out of the 19th century. It's horrifying. ... It should be criminal."
Some landlords expressed concern that they were being held to standards that had clearly not been applied to the rental units under discussion.
"I can't get away with anything," said one landlord. "Cracked glass, or linoleum ripped, or bad carpet. ... I know [local Avesta inspector] Kay very well. They're very thorough. When I saw [the article] I said, there's something wrong here."
"I'm a little confused," said Jack Richardson, a resident of Paris. "Mr. Warren back here mentions that Avesta won't let him get away with a thing, and yet it's Avesta that's inspecting these units."
Resident Chris Fitch, who is also the grandson of Madeline Pratt, said that the reports were a combination of tenant neglect and inflated media reports.
"I feel Avesta Housing is doing a wonderful job. I don't feel they're [landlords] getting away with anything," said Fitch. "I think the Advertiser Democrat blew it out of proportion. [In] 99.9 percent [of the cases], it's the tenants. I believe you have to look at the tenants before you look at the landlords."
Avesta Housing officials have documented various instances in which serious health and safety violations are not the fault of tenants.
Another tenant in the room said that Fitch had intimidated some of Pratt's residents in order to prevent them from attending the meeting.
Various tenants in attendance scoffed at the notion that they were responsible for the safety violations in their building.
"I totally disagree with that," said one, indicating a friend who rents in the area. "She has no heat in her apartment. It caught on fire. And he's [the landlord] told her numerous times that it's just an oil filter. We've got pictures that it has caught on fire, and he will not call anybody back."
Ron Ryder recounted living in a rooming house owned by Pratt on Main Street that burned down earlier in the year.
"Not one smoke detector worked in that house," he said. "You're gonna sit there and blame the tenants? ... I almost died in that fire."
Some landlords blamed the tenants for the housing conditions, while others said that substandard housing attracts an undesirable element to the town.
"I own properties in multiple towns," said one landlord. "We don't see this problem in Bethel. We don't see this problem in Woodstock or Greenwood or Sumner. ... In my opinion, what's happening here is you've got a group of buildings that allow virtually anything goes, and you're attracting these people. ... Maybe some of these people could go back to where they came from. Kind of like taking out the trash."
Other landlords said that a responsible building owner can make money by renting to low-income tenants without lowering standards.
"Those of you who own apartments, you can fill them up," said one. "You have to put time and effort into the buildings, but it does pay off."
Others suggested that it was simply a matter of caring enough to run a good building.
"A lot of landlords, they really don't care. ... I know someone that's in the business, he owns 40 or 50 places, all of them Section 8. He does not care," he said. "He's told me this personally, 'I don't care,' and he gets away with it. That's a true story."
Police Chief Robert Federico said that, under Norway's Disorderly House ordinance, landlords are responsible for the actions of their tenants.
The ordinance is a tool to help landlords control problem tenants, by giving them the ability to use repeated disorderly conduct as a grounds for eviction, said Federico.
Federico said that landlords sometimes evade the intent of the law by exploiting a loophole that allows them to shift tenants from one building to the next.
"If they shift that tenant to another building, ... then it starts all over fresh again. They can move that one problem tenant all over town for a long time, and we're kind of like a dog chasing its tail. That's one loophole that has been taken advantage of by some."
One tenant said it would be better if the town mandated that landlords post contact information for the CEO in each building so that tenants would know what to do in case of violations.
Another said that landlords should identify a resident in each building who would have the authority and responsibility to monitor and report on situations. Corey-Whitman said that the idea was a good one, but that it wouldn't be something the town could mandate.
Don Winkler, a local clergyman, said that high unemployment levels contribute to the situation.
Corey-Whitman said that tenants have been reluctant to seek help for violations in their units because they fear it will lead to an eviction.
"Tenants are worried about being thrown out on the street. These folks didn't know any better," she said. "And they certainly weren't going to call me and ask, because they were afraid I was going to condemn the building and kick them all out that night."
The fears are heightened by reported threats and intimidation tactics used by the landlords against the tenants.
"It's not going to work if you have a bunch of tenants who are afraid to come forward when they have a problem," said tenant Darlene Paine, "because we're afraid of being evicted, and we have nowhere else to go."
Another reported that tenants had been actively discouraged from attending the meeting by relatives of their landlord.
Avesta Housing officials said that any tenant who is being threatened or harassed by landlords should call Avesta, as such actions violate the landlord's Section 8 agreement. In cases where the tenants need to move, Avesta can help to relocate those tenants.
Collectively, the testimony of tenants and others painted a complex portrait of Madeline Pratt.
Some in the audience said that Pratt provides a valuable service by providing shelter to individuals who would otherwise be homeless.
"One way or another, the Pratts provide a shelter when it's 10 below zero," said Winkler.
Tenants expressed gratitude for Pratt's help even as they described the unsafe conditions in which they were living.
"I greatly appreciate the help that the Pratts have given me," said tenant Samantha Neil. "But it's not my fault that when I moved in ... half of my apartment doesn't have any electricity. My toilet backs up. It's not my fault that I have to plug my fridge into an extension cord. I know that they've done great things for me and that's why I haven't said anything, because I am homeless."
Various tenants reported that Pratt doesn't charge security deposits for her units, which can help otherwise homeless people to find housing, but which can also make it less likely that repairs will be made to the units.
Another suggested that the 91-year-old Pratt is too far removed from the situation on the ground to effectively monitor her properties.
"Madeline has a heart of gold. ... But she's aging, and the person that she has for her maintenance man, I think she's sending him to work on these places, but when he comes over to fix things at our house, all he does is he sits there and sits on the stairs and smokes cigarettes, and then he leaves," said one tenant. "He doesn't fix anything and he leaves. ... I think he's taking full advantage of her."
"Do you want to comment?" Corey-Whitman asked Pratt's daughter, Beverly Kimball.
"No, because I agree with her," said Kimball. "We know it."