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Pratt to lose all Section 8 funds
NORWAY — Landlord Madeline Pratt will no longer be allowed to participate in the Section 8 housing program, state officials confirmed on Friday.
Pratt's daughter Beverly Kimball, who helps to manage her mother's apartments, said that the state is not giving them a fair chance to bring their apartments into compliance.
Fourteen individuals and families who rent from Pratt will receive help from the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA) and Avesta Housing to relocate to other area apartments.
"We have some landlords who participate in the program and who are very good," said Margaret Bean, deputy director, MSHA. "They have come forward and said they have vacancies."
In all, Pratt estimates that she rents out a total of 35 apartments, most of which are not to Section 8 tenants.
Pratt will be subjected to a process called "disbarring."
"We had such a bad history of Mrs. Pratt never fixing what she's supposed to fix," said Bean.
Kimball said that Pratt has always responded to direction from MSHA, and that she should be given a chance to continue working with Section 8 tenants.
"Any time they've ever asked us to do anything, we've done it," said Kimball. "They're using [Avesta Inspector Kay Hawkins, who was fired] and my mother for scapegoats. I think it's baloney."
Bean said that the decision came not as a result of any particular violation, but because of an ongoing pattern of unsafe living conditions.
"Because of their poor history as a landlord, we are intending to cancel all of our contracts with them," said Bean.
Pratt's rental units were recently found to contain dozens of safety and health issues that were judged to be unfit for the federally-funded program.
Kimball said that the reason the units are in violation is usually because tenants have either caused the issues themselves, or have failed to report the conditions to the landlord.
"With that consistent history of substandard apartments, this is it," said Bean. "We're not going to enter into a contract with her to allow voucher holders in her buildings any more."
Bean said that, right now, an ongoing reinspection effort has not turned up any other landlords who will be disbarred.
"We are doing continued investigation on other properties and landlords, but we have not reached any conclusions on those," said Bean.
Dana Totman, president, Avesta, said that some landlords are better than others.
"Some landlords are clearly problematic," he said. "Changes are being made or the landlords are being removed from the program."
He said that a more complete picture would be seen after a 30-day reinspection period, after which landlords are required to fix all fail items in their units.
"The outcome will be much clearer when we go back after the 30 days is over," said Totman.
Five of the 14 relocated voucher holders had to move immediately, because of life-safety issues. Four of them live in a building with an unsafe fire escape; the fifth had a unit with electrical problems that were not immediately corrected, said Bean.
Kimball said that the fire escape has been made safe, and is just waiting on certification paperwork that will prove its soundness.
The remaining nine Section 8 voucher holders have until January 31 to find a new home.
Kimball said that she's received feedback from four tenants who say that they don't want to leave Pratt's buildings.
She said that one of them lives in the same building as Pratt, and that his unit passed all inspections with flying colors.
"They found not one thing wrong with that apartment," said Kimball.
Bean said that MSHA was taking the unusual step of providing security deposit money for this pool of tenants. Pratt does not charge her tenants for security deposits.
"We should be able to help everybody relocate," said Bean. "That's our goal."
These tenants, MSHA found, were stuck in their substandard apartments by circumstances beyond their control.
"Some of the things we found were that people were either afraid to move or they couldn't move. They were being held hostage to some unpaid rent, or they were afraid to move, so that we just felt that once we got in there and saw how bad those units really were and we had to [help them relocate]," said Bean.
Various tenants have reported being threatened and intimidated by their landlords. Tenants who fall behind on their portion of the rent may not move without landlord permission, under Section 8 rules.
Kimball questioned the legality of allowing tenants to move while they still owed Pratt for damages to their apartments.
"If they don't make him be in good standing by paying her up, how is that fair?" she asked. "They're just telling people, 'forget about Madeline Pratt, you don't have to pay her.' That's not right."
Bean said that substandard housing should not be subsidized by federal tax dollars.
"In society ... there's some really substandard apartments, and there's a place for those for people who have terrible credit references or who don't have any security deposit or anything, but federal subsidy shouldn't pay for those [substandard apartments]," said Bean. "We shouldn't be using valuable Section 8 subsidy to pay for that substandard housing, because those people could be in a nicer apartment with that same voucher."
Kimball said that, ever since the problems were first documented in an Advertiser Democrat article, the Pratt family has been working to come into compliance.
"Someone called me on Thursday and told me we shouldn't be putting thousands of dollars into the property because they were pulling the vouchers," said Kimball.
"I decided that we should still go ahead and fix the things because we need them to be safe."
The family has hired an additional worker recommended by the town to assist in bringing the units into compliance.
A problematic maintenance man for the Pratt properties has been identified by various tenants as being part of the problem.
"Hopefully, we can remedy that," she said, "if somebody would be in charge of him and keep him on his toes."
Kimball said that Pratt has a history of caring for her tenants that should be factored in.
"My mother went so far as to cook Christmas dinners for her tenants for years. It's not like she doesn't care for her tenants. She's very kind-hearted," said Kimball.
"I said, 'why not give her a chance?' You'll be going in every time you inspect for a new tenant. Why not give her a chance to remedy this? And they're just not going to."
While action is taken to safely relocate Pratt's tenants, questions remain as to how widespread the problems are.
"Our first issue was the safety of the tenants and so we reinspected everything that was highlighted by the article," said Bean.
Once the conditions described in the article were found to be real, MSHA and Avesta began broadening their search.
In all, Avesta oversees about 500 units in Oxford County, said Bean.
MSHA next identified a pool of 60 of those units spread throughout several towns in the county that were considered to be high-risk, based on previous violations.
Inspectors looked at those 60, to see whether they were also in substandard conditions.
"Those 60 are done," said Bean.
The results of those inspections, said Bean, justifies broadening the search even further.
At some point, said Bean, they hope to get to a level of risk category which will turn up an acceptable level of safe units.
She said the inspectors and auditor are committed to fixing the problem.
"They were out on some of the inspections today," she said. "We're working together to make sure that we're safe."
Totman said that the reinspections are being done, in part, by Avesta inspectors who have been administering the Section 8 program in York and Cumberland counties for years. Avesta has handled Section 8 in those counties since 1977, and expanded to Oxford County in 2006. Prior to that the program was administered by Community Concepts.
"Their [Avesta inspectors'] observation in general is that the housing stock is poorer than what it is in the southern counties," said Totman.
He suggested that understanding the difference in the overall housing quality might be part of the solution.
"I do know it is something we need to analyze and figure out to make sure we are going in the right direction of fixing it," said Totman.
Joelle Corey-Whitman, the code enforcement officer for Norway, said that she feels the correction will extend beyond Norway's borders.
"I don't think this will stop in the Oxford Hills. I don't think this will stop in Maine," she said. "I think a lot of places are going to be made safe now."
In Norway, Corey-Whitman said she would like to inspect the buildings that are being vacated by Section 8 tenants.
"The town has some responsibility, because I've got to make sure that I get in there now and look at some of those buildings ... . If they're pulling funding, there's obviously enough issues that the town should be in there looking at the rest of it."
Corey-Whitman said that the specific addresses have not been released, which makes it difficult for her to know which ones are at issue.
"We have a meeting tomorrow, Maine State housing, Avesta and myself, to streamline how we're all going to share information," said Corey-Whitman. "We are just starting to figure that part out right now."
Totman said that working closely with Norway will be a part of the solution.
"We're working as closely with the town as we possibly can both to improve the housing stock and to avoid the substandard housing that some landlords are providing," he said.
He said that, when a Norway official notices violations in a building that includes Section 8 tenants, he would like for Avesta to be notified. On the other hand, when Avesta inspectors notice safety violations during their inspections, they should be notifying the town.
The sharing of information would help to increase effective enforcement, and accountability, he suggested.
In the meantime, Corey-Whitman is going through Norway rental buildings looking for life safety issues that need to be addressed.
"Ive started my inspections already, and I'm going to continue with those. I've already done three buildings and mailed 15 notices to 13 different landlords," she said. She estimated that about three-fourths of the inspections she's done have been the result of tenant complaints.
She urged tenants with issues to contact her and let her know about any violations.
"People deserve to live in safe, healthy homes," she said.
Bean said that the MSHA is using an auditor to investigate itself, and its contractor, Avesta Housing, to see how the unsafe units were allowed to be enrolled in the program in the first place.
"Our internal auditor is embarking upon a study of the whole process here as well as Avesta to look at the system and see where did things fall apart, where were the holes, what happened," said Bean.
Bean said that the auditor, Linda Grotton, is expected to generate a report to MSHA Director Dale McCormick by mid-December.
Bean said that Grotton is an MSHA employee, but she is still considered an independent auditor.
"She's independent. She works for our board, not for our director," said Bean. "She's been out with the inspectors with her boots on, and she's looking at everything."
Totman said that Avesta is contributing to Grotton's efforts.
"We're feeding all our thoughts to Linda Grotton, so her report will be quite pivotal," he said.
In addition to Grotton's independent efforts, said Totman, Avesta is taking a look at its own policies in an effort to discover how this might have happened.
"We certainly are reviewing closely all the procedures and steps in the program," said Totman.
MSHA's contract with Avesta is one of the many things that Grotton is evaluating, said Bean.
"We're looking at everything."
Edited on December 1 to properly identify the MaineHousing Director as Dale McCormick.