State investigates how it missed ‘disgusting’ problems in Norway low-income housing

Posted Dec. 20, 2011, at 8:44 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 21, 2011, at 10:25 a.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.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Members of the Maine State Housing Authority’s Board of Directors questioned how staff missed serious problems with Section 8 housing buildings in the Norway area, during their monthly meeting Tuesday.

The problems with longtime landlord Madeline Pratt’s 12 buildings came to light this fall through a series of investigative articles by the Norway-based Advertiser Democrat.

On Tuesday, MSHA board Chairman Peter Anastos called the properties “disgusting,” “lousy” and “horribly deficient.”

The housing authority has blocked the 90-year-old Pratt from participating in the Section 8 housing program for low-income residents. Amanda Bartlett of the housing authority has been investigating the situation.

The authority had contracted with Avesta Housing to perform inspections on the Section 8 housing in Oxford and Androscoggin counties, she said.

Avesta employed inspector Kay Hawkins who had previously worked for another group that did the same inspections in the area. Hawkins had been inspecting such properties in the area for about 11 years, said Bartlett. Hawkins was fired after the Advertiser Democrat’s series was published.

“The bottom line was this was a rogue inspector,” said Linda Groton, the housing authority’s internal audit manager, who is working on a full report of what happened and how the problem continued.

Many complaints about the apartments from tenants went directly to Hawkins, who dealt with them herself, said Groton. Avesta didn’t know of the problems, nor did the housing authority, Groton said.

“Everyone was blindsided by this; everyone was appalled,” she said. “This inspector was a very trusted employee.”

Anastos, however, said he’s heard that town officials have said the problems were on-going for years.

“It stretches the imagination that we shouldn’t have known about it,” he said.

Hawkins, reached Tuesday, said she was inspecting more than 634 tenants, and the ones singled out as problems were less than 10 percent of her caseload.

“It wasn’t my whole overall performance,” she said. “It’s not as simple as everyone thinks — this whole thing is not simple.”

Asked about the allegations made about her job performance, she said,

“What can I say? The cards are stacked. Let them say what they want, there’s nothing I can do.”

Hawkins said the apartments passed inspection when she was there, but “once you leave, you don’t know what’s going to happen.” Complaints would be filed in between inspections, she said, but they were handled by her supervisors.

She suggested that every housing inspector around the state has similar problem apartments.

“I did it 12 years, and I did it to the best of my ability — there’s a lot of judgment calls,” she said.

Asked about board comments about the awful condition of some of the apartments, she asked “Awful to whose standards?”

“These people chose these apartments, they were good when they moved in … things happened,” she said.

Board member Donald F. Capoldo Jr. had toured some of the units with Bartlett. He noted that a relative of the landlord’s with a criminal history had been harassing tenants in the apartments, “putting fear into the people who lived there.”

Bartlett said the tenants she interviewed “were essentially living in their units in fear … being held hostage in their units,” afraid the relative would evict them or harass them. They wouldn’t call Avesta or Maine State Housing, either because they didn’t know they could complain, or they were too scared, she said.

Capoldo suggested that even if Avesta or the authority was unaware, “there was an atmosphere where it was allowed.”

Capoldo said he thought it was “quite possible” Avesta officials knew what was happening in the area, but didn’t want to shut down landlords and put people on the streets.

“We were clearly blindsided,” Avesta President Dana Totman told the Bangor Daily News. “We have been running this program since 1977 in southern Maine, and since 2006 in the Norway area, and our reviews by Maine State Housing Authority had been satisfactory, our staff was certainly operating consistently and professionally. We had no idea that there were these conditions that had Section 8 residents in them.”

Groton said in hindsight, there were some “red flags” that both Avesta and the housing authority should have noticed. For example, Hawkins, the inspector, gave approvals to some units that had failed spot-check inspections by the housing authority in the past, Groton said.

Groton also said there was no one person who saw the whole picture of problems, who could connect the dots.

The agency will change some of its processes to catch any potential problems in the future, said Bartlett. It plans to increase the frequency of quality control inspections from annually to quarterly, she said, and also will increase the number of units inspected.

Dale McCormick, executive director of the housing authority, said the authority also would pay special attention to landlords who have more complaints against them than is the norm, and will inspect those properties more often. Had that been in place, McCormick said, the housing authority may have caught the problems in the Norway area a year earlier.

Groton said the problem in Norway seemed to become worse with time, progressing to a “downhill slide.”

Bartlett said the agency also has stepped up efforts to make sure tenants are aware of their rights. McCormick said a number of agencies, from local code inspectors to the state Fire Marshal’s Office, are looking at how problems with these units went unnoticed for so long.

Totman, from Avesta, said his organization would work more closely with local code enforcement officers, reporting problems with units to them and getting information in return. Avesta’s contract to do Section 8 inspections in Androscoggin and Oxford counties expired this month, Totman said.

Given the circumstances, he said, the group thought it best to have the Maine Housing Authority take over responsibility for inspections in those counties, though Avesta still does that work in York and Cumberland counties.

The board also approved the housing authority’s budget for the coming year and discussed a number of other issues. The meeting was at times tense, given the current political environment the housing authority finds itself in.

State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the housing authority’s Board of Directors, has taken the quasi-governmental organization to task for considering projects he charged were too expensive. As recently as last week, Gov. Paul LePage expressed a desire to have more control over the housing authority.

Anastos, one of four new board members LePage appointed this fall, at times expressed exasperation with McCormick’s answers. McCormick, in turn, asked Poliquin several times if information he requested could hold until the January meeting, generally to no avail.

Toward the end of the meeting, Poliquin began questioning McCormick and her staff on the authority’s charitable contributions, which amount to about $20,000 a year. He asked about two $6,500 donations, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, to a theater group.

He was told the group works with homeless youths, to help rehabilitate them. The group had done several workshops for the department, said Deputy Director Adam Krea.

“How does that relate to building affordable housing? What does that have to do with our mission here?” Poliquin asked.

Krea answered, “We have a whole department here that deals with homelessness.”

Anastos noted that problems with charitable donations at the Maine Turnpike Authority that resulted in the toppling of its executive director have highlighted the issue with all quasi-governmental agencies. All such expenses bear inspection, he suggested.

At one point, Anastos spoke directly to the housing authority staff members who were at the meeting.

“I apologize for the upheaval, I think you all do a great job,” he said. “I have no problem with the staff, it’s just the direction of the agency.”

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