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Feds called to probe Section 8 problems ... Collins asks for federal investigation of rental housing in county
COUNTY — U.S. Senator Susan Collins has called for a federal investigation into subsidized low-income housing in Oxford County, after reading reports from within the county that documented dangerous rental units.
On Tuesday, Collins said that she was concerned about abuses of the Section 8 housing subsidy program.
"I'm concerned about the health and well-being of the families and individuals who are living in this housing, since they are my constituents too," said Collins. "It disturbs me greatly that taxpayer dollars are going for housing that is so clearly substandard."
Collins sent a formal request to Inspector General David Montoya of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
"I request ... that you audit property inspection and enforcement practices in Oxford County, Maine, to determine how substandard units received federal support," Collins wrote.
Collins called on Montoya to ensure effective oversight of taxpayer-subsidized housing.
"I request your assistance to ensure that federal housing subsidies are not supporting properties that violate either Maine fire safety codes or HUD's Housing Quality Standards," she wrote.
Fire chief speaks
Collins said that she was troubled by a letter she received from Paris Fire Chief Brad Frost that included a copy of an Advertiser Democrat article spotlighting dangerous housing conditions for Section 8 tenants.
"The idea that tax dollars were going to support an apartment that appears to be unfit for the family living there, and unhealthy and unsafe as well, really troubled me," said Collins. "For [a reported rent of] $819 a month, in Norway, Maine we should be looking at an apartment that is decent, sanitary and safe, and [an apartment in the article] appeared to be none of the three."
In the weeks following the article, the Maine State Housing Authority documented nearly 100 violations in 10 rental units, and began an internal audit to learn how the units passed inspections by Avesta Housing, the organization that administers the Section 8 program locally.
Problems ranged from mold and vermin to electrical problems and other fire hazards.
"As a longtime fire chief I have seen firsthand the conditions of these apartments and buildings the tenants are expected to live in," Frost wrote in his letter to Collins.
Avesta Housing inspector Kay Hawkins was subsequently fired, Norway landlord Madeline Pratt had her Section 8 access revoked, and MSHA inspectors found that the problems were widespread enough to merit the reinspection of Section 8 rental units throughout the region. Officials in Norway and Paris have also taken steps to address the problem of substandard rental housing in their towns.
The federal probe would seek answers as to why statewide fire codes are not enforced. Local officials have said they have only a limited ability to enforce such rules.
Collins specifically tasked Montoya with investigating compliance with the Life Safety code of the National Fire Protection Agency, which has been adopted by the state of Maine.
Frost said that noncompliance with the NFPA code was widespread.
"My concern is that none of these apartments come anywhere near ... meeting this code," he wrote. "Whoever is conducting inspections for HUD is not holding the landlord liable in meeting these codes which is putting tenants in harm's way. All the time the landlord is collecting easy money from HUD."
Collins said that HUD and the MSHA have both demonstrated a lack of effective oversight.
"I am concerned that neither Maine State Housing Authority nor HUD identified these serious violations," wrote Collins.
On Tuesday, Collins said that she has learned of other problems in HUD housing, including in Philadelphia, where millions of dollars in Section 8 funds were frozen after investigators uncovered abuse and fraud.
"Sadly, this problem is not unique to Oxford County," said Collins. "Regardless of where it exists, it is completely unacceptable. People need to be held accountable."
Investigations in New Orleans, Florida, and Tennessee have documented poor housing conditions, fraud, and thousands of registered sex offenders living in subsidized housing against HUD rules, according to news reports.
"Taxpayers spend literally billions a year on subsidized housing. If what we've seen here and elsewhere are at all representative, there is a real problem with the housing program," said Collins.
On Tuesday, Collins said that the preliminary response to her request from Montoya's staff had been positive, and that it would be "highly unusual" for such a request to be refused.
"I am hopeful that he will respond to the request, and I'm going to push him to do so," she said.
Collins recently became the ranking republican on the Senate's Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, which provides the budget for HUD and the Section 8 program.
She said that she expected an official response to come from Montoya after the holidays.
In September, before being appointed as the Inspector General, Montoya said that his priorities would include ensuring that "HUD's resources are being effectively and efficiently implemented. I will work to ensure early detection of warning signs of fraud or abuse."
Collins said that Congress needs to have better oversight of HUD, which in turn needs to have better oversight of the contractors that administer the Section 8 program.
"We need more data and more information and more recommendations to really get to the bottom of it," said Collins.