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Exposé prompts investigation of rental units
INSPECTIONS — Amanda Bartlett of MSHA's MaineHousing program, and Dick Sawyer, an Avesta inspector from the Saco region, inspect units at 16 Cottage Street on Friday.
NORWAY — Within a few hours of the Advertiser Democrat's story titled "Slumlords, shoddy oversight, tax dollars ... living on Section 8" hitting the newsstand, the Town of Norway scheduled a community meeting to address the issues raised.
Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman printed posters and hand-delivered them to landlords and tenants; she posted them throughout town announcing the meeting and urging all interested parties to attend.
"We want everyone, residents, tenants, landlords ... all interested parties to come to this meeting to have an open and solution-oriented discussion about rental units, property maintenance and reworking the rental ordinance," read the notice.
Corey-Whitman also noted she would be personally inviting residents and business owners who have expressed concerns over the last few months along with residents of the buildings noted in the newspaper article dated October 27.
Norway Police Chief Robert Federico and Fire Chief Dennis Yates will be on hand to help address the concerns raised. Avesta Housing administrators also indicated that they would participate in the meeting.
Topics of discussion will include rental unit inspections; fire escapes and egresses; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and responsibilities; electrical safety standards; plumbing; walls; ceilings; doors; windows; locks and door handles; hazardous materials; and general cleanliness.
The meeting is scheduled for tomorrow, November 4, at 4 p.m. at the town offices.
Also quickly reacting were officials from both Avesta and Maine State Housing Association (MSHA).
MSHA directly monitors the inspection of a percentage of Section 8 rental units in the state, according to public statements from the organization.
Deborah Turcotte of MSHA released a prepared statement that said that the units described in the article had not been subject to this monitoring.
"Due to the randomness of the unit selection process, these units had not been monitored in the last year," said Turcotte.
Avesta Housing administrators also released a prepared statement in response to follow-up inquiries.
"The living conditions outlined in the ... Advertiser Democrat article are unacceptable and do not represent the quality, safe and decent housing that Avesta Housing stands for," said Debora Keller, director of programs, Avesta. "We are currently investigating the issues outlined in the article and are working swiftly to address them. ... The abuses outlined in last Thursday’s article will not be tolerated."
Tenants reported that on the day the article was published, local representatives from Avesta visited their apartment and told them that an inspection would be conducted the following day.
Norway Town Manager David Holt received communications from both agencies the day the story was published.
According to Holt, Peter Merrill of MSHA has launched "an investigation of housing that MSHA subsidizes for Norway residents."
"Peter is upset by the reports," noted Holt, "and has promised me to get to the bottom of what's wrong. His first responsibility is see the tenants have adequate housing."
"I feel that a coalition made up of tenants, landlords, and those of us who pay for housing and enforce the rules is needed," he continued.
Avesta Chief Executive Dana Totman also contacted Holt and pledged his full cooperation in looking at Norway's rental housing issues, said Holt.
"Dana and I agreed that tough housing conditions and high unemployment are not new to this part of the world and that if we work together our chances of making things better are enhanced."
On Friday, the day after the report was published, inspectors from the MSHA and Avesta were on the scene, looking at properties named in the article.
"We're doing some preliminary fact finding," said Amanda E. Bartlett of the MSHA MaineHousing program in between inspections of units at 15 and 16 Cottage Street. "We take the safety of our tenants very seriously, and we're giving an opportunity to tenants to express themselves and tell us about any concerns that they have."
According to Turcotte, MaineHousing contacted the tenants of the listed properties, "and 10 of the 15 tenants got back to us and agreed to have their properties inspected by MaineHousing."
Dick Sawyer, an Avesta inspector from the organization's Saco region, was also on hand to conduct inspections. The inspectors also visited 7 Lynn Street with Beverly Kimball, who said that she sometimes helps her mother, Madeline Pratt, manage Pratt's rental units.
Kimball said that she felt the fault for the condition of the units lies with the tenants.
Tenants at 7 Lynn said that a maintenance worker for Madeline Pratt rushed over before the inspectors, and began working on the large gaps in a ceiling that had been mentioned in the article.
Residents of one apartment said that the inspectors found multiple problems within their unit, including two non-compliant windows, cracked floor tiles, a bad bathroom floor, the ceiling, and a dangerous hole in an upside-down desk that had been attached to a bench.
"Landlords were verbally notified of emergency life safety items that needed repair within 24 hours, and tenants were informed of those emergency items during the inspections," said Turcotte.
She said that the emergency items were all corrected, except one.
"The properties were re-inspected, and all of the items were corrected with the exception of the fire escape at one building," said Turcotte.
"Our mission at MaineHousing is to make sure people have safe and affordable housing," said Bartlett. "That's absolutely our number one goal. We're here as quickly as possible to make sure that happens."
On Tuesday, landlords were sent "failed inspection" letters, according to Turcotte. The 24-hour emergency items were included in the letters, and the landlords were given up to 30 days to repair problems that were not life-threatening, she said.
"HUD requires that we re-inspect within 30 days," she said.
Keller said that Avesta is working with MaineHousing to address the issue in various ways.
She said that, in addition to the new inspections, tenants were notified of their rights, and that further actions may be taken.
"[We are] working on a relocation plan for tenants who are currently living in unsafe conditions. Administrative and personnel actions will also be taken as appropriate."
In a tenant's rights statement, Avesta stresses the following:
"You need to know that your landlord cannot evict you if there are repairs that need to be made to the building or unit you are renting. If you request repairs be made and they are not done or you are told you will be evicted, please contact our office immediately to report this. It is not true and we are here to support and assist you in any way we can."
"Knowing that this has occurred, MaineHousing is revisiting its policies and procedures," she said.
Turcotte also said that fire safety and egress issues were referred to Ed Bennett of the State Fire Marshal's office.
Turcotte asks that any tenant who holds a Section 8 voucher and has concerns about their living conditions call MaineHousing toll-free at 1-800-452-4668.