Collins seeks federal probe into why taxpayer money funded housing squalor in Oxford County

Posted Dec. 23, 2011, at 1:42 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 St. 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 St. 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 — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has requested a federal investigation into taxpayer-subsidized low-income housing in Oxford County that had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

In a letter sent Thursday from Collins to David Montoya, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the senator urged the department to look into claims that property owners continued to receive federal aid for their apartments while the units failed to meet fire and safety standards.

The properties in question triggered a strong reaction at this week’s meeting of the Maine State Housing Authority board of directors, where Chairman Peter Anastos called 12 Norway-area buildings owned by landlord Madeline Pratt “disgusting.” After investigating the situation, the Norway-based Advertiser Democrat published that several of the apartments in question had deteriorating walls, electrical outlets that sparked when used, and bathroom sinks that bubbled up with sewage when the nearby toilet was flushed.

In her letter, Collins notes reports that the apartments were in violation of the National Fire Protection Association 101 Life Safety Code adopted by the state of Maine, among other things.

“I am concerned that neither Maine State Housing Authority nor HUD identified these serious violations,” Collins wrote, in part. “As Ranking Member of the Senate Transportation and Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, I am concerned that taxpayers are subsidizing properties that not only violate fire safety codes in my state, but also fail to comply with the Housing Quality Standards required by HUD. The well-being and safety of the tenants living in these units concern me.”

During the MaineHousing board meeting, discussion centered on how unsafe conditions in the low-income housing units were undiscovered for so long. The quasi-state agency contracted with the Portland-based Avesta Housing for inspections in Oxford and Androscoggin counties, and Avesta inspector Kay Hawkins had been evaluating the apartments in question for more than a decade.

After the Advertiser Democrat investigation, Hawkins was fired and called a “rogue inspector” by MaineHousing’s internal audit manager. Hawkins defended her work to the Bangor Daily News, saying the units under fire represent a small percentage of her overall workload during the past 12 years and said complaints about the apartments were filed between inspections and were logged with her supervisors.

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

Maine State Housing Authority representatives reportedly are putting together a full report on the Norway-area low-income housing problems.

Information from BDN Business Editor Matt Wickenheiser was used in this story.

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