MaineHousing to overhaul Section 8 inspections

Posted Wednesday, January 11, 2012 in Investigation

MaineHousing to overhaul Section 8 inspections

A.M. Sheehan, Advertiser-Democrat.  The plaster has collapsed onto the floor at this Cottage Street, Norway address owned by Madeline Pratt. The ceiling fell in almost a year ago and had yet to be repaired when the Advertiser Democrat took this photo in October 2011.

by Gina Hamilton

MaineHousing has had a tough year. In addition to building and maintaining housing directly for low-income elderly and families, the agency also deals with Section 8 vouchers (financed by the federal government) throughout the state.  Section 8 vouchers are used to reimburse private landlords, and there are very specific requirements for housing allowed to be Section 8. MaineHousing is ultimately responsible to inspect Section 8 housing, in many cases, contracting the work to local inspectors.  

While trying to do the rather overwhelming job assigned to them, they've also been trying to deal with the new political climate.  For most of the year, MaineHousing has had to fend off inquiries by treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the board of commissioners, repeatedly questioning how much it costs to build a quality low-income housing unit.  Although Poliquin is a developer, he has no experience in the legal risk attendant in public housing.   In recent days, Gov. Paul LePage has attacked the authority too, claiming he could solve the funding crisis in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) by giving him control over MaineHousing (he is forbidden from meddling in MaineHousing by law).

Unknown to the authority, a problem had come up in Section 8 Housing in Norway, beginning in May, when tenants were displaced due to a fire.  The tenants were lucky to have escaped with their lives -- egress windows were blocked and there were few working smoke detectors.  But the problem in Norway was more systemic.  When the tenants had been resettled in housing, much of it owned by the same landlord who owned the boarding house that went up in flames, other problems -- from sewage coming up into sinks to no exterior doors to ceilings coming down -- arose.  The properties had theoretically been inspected before the tenants moved it.

One of the inspectors, however, was clearly overwhelmed. Kay Hawkins worked as an inspector for Avesta Housing, a Portland-based nonprofit development firm hired by MaineHousing to administer the agency's Section 8 programs in Androscoggin, Oxford, Cumberland and York counties.  Hawkins, who was subsequently fired by Avesta, told investigators she had become "jaded" after 11 years on the job and admitted, "Sometimes, I feel like it doesn't matter anymore."

A local newspaper, the Advertiser-Democrat, uncovered the problems in a three-month investigation.  They published on a Thursday in October; the next day, MaineHousing responded forcefully.  They immediately reinspected all the properties in question, took over the investigating process from Avesta, and in early January, published an audit report that outlined the problems, and the solutions. 

“To read in the Advertiser-Democrat article about the deplorable substandard conditions in which people were living was unacceptable," McCormick said in a statement. "It was clear to me that there was a failure in our system of quality control in the administration of the voucher program in Norway that allowed for these conditions to pass inspection. We are undertaking the bold changes that are required to address this problem, and will follow through on the recommendations outlined in the report.”

There is little question that the new procedures will solve most, if not all, of the problems, but because the authority has already been embattled, it may be difficult to demonstrate to elements within the administration that change has been implemented.

Deborah Turcotte, spokeswoman for MaineHousing, said that new procedures to help tenants in substandard living situations have already been put into place.  "We have begun housing fairs," she said.  "We have moved all the tenants from the known substandard housing, and will continue to offer housing fairs around the state to let tenants know that they have options."

One of the things that Hawkins said was that she often "overlooked" problems with housing because neither she ... nor the tenants ... believed there were other places available.  "We aren't going to make the tenants do this on their own," Turcotte said. 

The most serious impediment is the low number of approved Section 8 properties on the market.  "We could use an additional 5,000 properties," Turcotte said.  "We have waiting lists almost everywhere."

But other procedures will help.  Photos of problem properties will accompany reports; tenants will be given information about how to contact MaineHousing to report issues, and inspectors will undergo training and have better support networks in place. 

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