State promises Section 8 housing changes

Posted Jan. 08, 2012, at 7:11 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 09, 2012, at 5:24 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 — Citing substandard conditions in low-income housing in the Norway area, Maine State Housing Authority officials are promising to make changes to how such housing units are inspected.

The changes, recommended by an internal MSHA audit, are being taken following the publication of a series of investigative articles last fall by the Norway-based Advertiser Democrat that exposed substandard living conditions at MSHA-subsidized low-income housing units in Norway and Paris. Portland-based Avesta Housing administers the state’s Section 8 program in the Oxford County area.

MSHA officials, calling the conditions “disgusting,” subsequently barred the owner of the housing, 90-year-old Madeline Pratt, from participating in the Section 8 program.

In a prepared statement released Friday evening, the authority indicated it plans to phase out outside contracts for Section 8 housing, including Avesta, and to bring the program in-house.

It will start by administering the program in Oxford and Androscoggin counties, the statement indicated.

“We are undertaking bold changes that are required to address this problem and will follow through on the recommendations outlined in the [audit] report,” MSHA Director Dale McCormick said in the statement.

MSHA plans to increase the number of inspections of Section 8 housing, to conduct quarterly inspector meetings, and to require inspectors to log complaints in a system that will be reviewed monthly by MSHA officials.

Other planned changes include:

  • Formalizing ongoing education about the program for Section 8 participants, including tenants, landlords and other officials.
  • Providing tenants with a questionnaire that will ask if they feel threatened or safe in their homes.
  • Organizing housing fairs statewide to help spread relevant information.
  • Partnering with municipal fire, police and code enforcement officials to ensure the health and safety of tenants.

MSHA’s internal auditor, who reports directly to MSHA’s board of commissioners, found that “without exception, everyone involved stated that they were ‘shocked’ by the living conditions” at Pratt’s properties in Norway and Paris, according to the release. It said the same people responsible for overseeing the Section 8 program in the area blamed a program housing inspector employed by Avesta for letting the poor conditions go unaddressed.

MSHA said in the release that, according to the auditor, tenants may have tried to contact Avesta about the conditions, and MSHA employees may have tried to provide general information to Avesta about inspection and reporting procedures. But, according to MSHA, the auditor noted that MSHA “should have taken a step back to look for a pattern in those reports that possibly could have identified a lack of oversight that could lead to substandard living conditions.”

MSHA added that since the Advertiser Democrat published its series, the state agency has issued repair notices for the failed housing units and given new Section 8 vouchers to affected tenants who wish to move. It also has staged a housing fair to provide information and access to Section 8 tenants and landlords and provided tenants with information on their rights and how to contact MSHA with their concerns.

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