State alleges safety problems with Norway apartments; Landlord blames Section 8 tenants

Posted Nov. 20, 2011, at 9:25 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 20, 2011, at 9:13 p.m.
Plaster bits fall and mold appears to be building up where a ceiling collapsed outside the bathroom in a first floor apartment at 15 Cottage Street in Norway 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.
A.M. Sheehan | Advertiser Democrat
Plaster bits fall and mold appears to be building up where a ceiling collapsed outside the bathroom in a first floor apartment at 15 Cottage Street in Norway 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.

NORWAY, Maine — The Maine State Housing Authority will stop paying rent for 14 tenants living in Section 8 apartments owned by longtime local landlord Madeline Pratt.

The state is severing its contract with Pratt on some apartments based on recent inspections that turned up safety violations in a number of Pratt’s 12 buildings in Norway and Paris. All affected tenants were expected to be notified of the action by the end of Friday.

“We’re just done,” Peter Merrill, communications and planning director for MSHA, said Friday of the situation that resulted in the firing of a local housing inspector and the relocation of at least 14 tenants.

The state’s stoppage of rental payments began with four tenants on Nov. 1. The rest will be staggered over the next two months based on when re-inspections occur, housing officials said. More tenants could be affected as inspections continue to turn up violations.

The tenants are given 30-day notices that the subsidy payment will be stopped on a particular date. They can transfer the subsidy to a new apartment.

Re-inspections by the state began after a recent investigation by the Norway-based Advertiser Democrat into allegations of locked secondary exits and lack of smoke detectors following a fire last spring in one of Pratt’s buildings that left 11 people homeless. The newspaper report prompted an emergency meeting of state and local officials, tenants, landlords and other concerned residents on Nov. 4. The meeting focused on problems in Section 8 apartments and the roles Maine State Housing and Avesta, the state’s local agent, played in the situation.

“Some of those (tenants) are already working toward finding another unit,” said Amanda Bartlett of the MSHA, who has been working to relocate people in suitable housing. The agency will pay security deposits for the displaced tenants, she said.

The federal Section 8 program helps very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled afford decent housing in the private market, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Housing vouchers are issued and administered locally by public housing agencies — in this case, the Portland-based Avesta Housing. Avesta receives federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to administer the voucher program in Oxford, Androscoggin, York and Cumberland counties.

About 1,300 people in the four counties are serviced by Avesta under Section 8.

Norway Town Manager David Holt said Friday that building inspector Joelle Corey-Whitman will continue to inspect apartment buildings in town and to take action when necessary.

“Whether you have a voucher or you don’t, the need for safety is the same,” Holt said.

Pratt said Friday she had not been advised of the state’s action.

“They’re playing tricks,” she said. “All my apartments are up to code.”

The 90-year-old owns 12 apartment buildings with a total of 33 units in Norway and Paris.

Pratt said she began buying housing units with a house on Alpine Street shortly after World War II. Back then, she ran rooming houses, making sure they were kept clean and even washing the bedding of workers from the bustling factories in town.

Several decades later, she went to Augusta to lobby to bring Section 8 housing to Norway, she said.

“If it hadn’t been for me, there wouldn’t be any Section 8 in town,” she said.

Pratt defended the state of her buildings, many 19th-century, wood-frame homes, saying people with Section 8 vouchers generally should not be in new construction because they do not clean their homes.

“I’ll tell you right now, the people we’re dealing with today should not be in new construction,” she said. “You should see these houses when they move out.” She cited trash, dirty “flushes” and other unsanitary conditions brought on by tenants.

“It’s not fair; there’s not much we can do about it,” she said.

Pratt said she has poured thousands of dollars into the Lynn Street apartment building, updating things such as smoke detectors and the thickness of walls to meet fire codes. The Lynn Street building is on the market, she said.

Pratt said she received a minimum of annual inspections on her 12 buildings by Avesta Housing inspector Kay Hawkins, the Section 8 inspector in Norway and Paris, who was fired last month when reports surfaced about safety violations in apartment buildings that take Section 8 housing vouchers.

“I won’t be around for long, so what will be will be,” Pratt said.

To see more from the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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