MaineHousing gets results of federal Section 8 audit; is 'responsive'

Posted Wednesday, October 3, 2012 in News

MaineHousing gets results of federal Section 8 audit; is 'responsive'

Photo credit: A.M. Sheehan, Advertiser-Democrat. The plaster has collapsed onto the floor at this Cottage Street, Norway, building 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

AUGUSTA — The Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its final audit report of MaineHousing’s administration of the Housing Choice Voucher Program. MaineHousing did not wait for this report to institute a corrective action plan and consulted with OIG and HUD regularly to implement it.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program was under fire after photos of seriously substandard housing were released by the Advertiser-Democrat newspaper in October 2011. HUD, which provides funding for the Section 8 program, demanded an audit. 

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 in.

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.

When the extent of the problems was published, MaineHousing, to its credit, responded forcefully. It 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.

The OIG concluded that “the actions taken by Authority officials are responsive to our recommendations.”

OIG’s audit is one of several responses to an October 2011 Norway Advertiser-Democrat article that brought attention to what MaineHousing considers shocking substandard living conditions experienced by tenants who received Section 8 vouchers administered by MaineHousing and one of its agents.

MaineHousing last fall immediately took action to address the Norway situation and went further by thoroughly examining its administration of the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program. As a result of that review, MaineHousing created an action plan to improve the entire program and ensure rental units meet federal housing quality standards. HUD has been updated monthly on MaineHousing’s progress.

As part of the action plan, MaineHousing:

In the final audit report being submitted to the regional HUD office and MaineHousing, the OIG recommends that deficiencies found in 53 of the 61 units it inspected be fixed. All units were repaired, the rent abated, or the tenant moved out. It also recommended that MaineHousing improve its quality control inspection process to ensure that HCV Program units are meeting housing quality standards; that is being done through the corrective action plan.

“Since last fall, MaineHousing has taken strong, far-reaching steps to ensure that its HCV Program provides quality service to tenants living in apartments subsidized by Section 8 vouchers,” said John Gallagher, director of MaineHousing. “We thank all of the landlords and tenants who have endured numerous inspections for their cooperation and patience over the last few months. We appreciate your willingness to learn what factors can cause a housing unit to fail an inspection, and your actions to remedy them.

“Be assured that MaineHousing is working hard to create a model delivery system that will ensure quality housing and excellent service for Maine’s voucher holders.”  

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