The Maine State Housing Authority has improved its system for inspecting housing units, but much work remains.
The quasi-state agency can do more to educate landlords about housing deficiencies, create incentives for landlords to maintain their units, provide landlords access to low-interest loans if they can’t afford to make needed repairs, place a greater emphasis on prevention of decrepit housing, continually evaluate the inspections process and create community partnerships between tenants and community organizations.
An Office of Inspector General audit report released this week showed what MaineHousing has known: that the government was subsidizing some tenants to live in shocking conditions. The audit found that, of 61 units inspected, 53, or 87 percent, did not meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development quality standards.
The controversy began in October 2011 when the Norway Advertiser Democrat published a story showing many examples of people, whose rent was subsidized through the federal Section 8 program, living in deplorable conditions. Tenants had holes in their ceilings, mold, no electric power, no front door and waste bubbling up in the bathroom sinks
MaineHousing completed its own audit of Oxford County units and found that a majority of them did not meet standards. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins asked HUD to review MaineHousing’s management of the program, and, in the meantime, MaineHousing began making changes. It must continue to expand its improvement efforts under new agency Director John Gallagher.
Between January and the end of September, MaineHousing phased out the four third-party organizations that administered 2,329 of the 3,199 Section 8 housing units in the state. Those organizations were Avesta Housing Corp., Aroostook County Action Program, Penquis and Washington-Hancock Community Agency. MaineHousing now will administer Section 8 housing directly.
By bringing the program in-house, MaineHousing can better set consistent practices, train its own inspectors and have them meet regularly to share their work. Instead of contracting with four agencies that had a total of seven inspectors, MaineHousing now has direct control of nine inspectors. It will have to determine whether nine is enough.
MaineHousing also made the Section 8 program its own department — the Housing Choice Voucher Department — and hired a director, Denise Lord. Of the 34 employees in the department, only 11 of them worked for the program before the Advertiser Democrat article.
In addition to getting rid of its contractors and many employees, MaineHousing changed part of its inspections process and now performs checks before a tenant is approved for a unit. If the unit starts off in the best possible condition, it’s more likely to remain that way, Lord said.
MaineHousing is improving its communication with landlords, sending them information regularly to let them know the most common deficiencies, so they can correct them before an inspection. Instead of simply having an inspector come in to a unit to assign it a pass or fail grade, more can be done to focus on education and preparation.
Some improvements are simple. If a tenant has removed a light bulb from a socket or a battery from a smoke detector, the rental unit fails its inspection. Of course some units fail because of significant problems — such as sewage in the basement or no heat — but no landlord or tenant should let a unit fail when there’s an easy fix.
When it comes to more extensive problems, it’s important for landlords to be able to make the necessary repairs. (If violations are not fixed, HUD can suspend the landlord’s rental subsidy payment). One way for MaineHousing to provide assistance is to set up a low-interest loan program for eligible landlords. It can also provide more incentives for those who care for well-maintained units.
The situation may improve, too, if MaineHousing betters its relationship with landlords and tenants. In addition to focusing on education, prevention, assistance and incentives, improving relationships will involve connecting tenants to resources in their community and motivating them to achieve economic independence.
The Family Self-Sufficiency program, for example, allows tenants to put some of their rent subsidy toward their education or a downpayment on a house. MaineHousing can do more to market the program and target likely candidates for it.
MaineHousing must create more partnerships with community service employees and agencies — such as General Assistance administrators, code enforcement officers, homeless shelters, area agencies on aging, domestic violence shelters and others — to cross-train related workers and improve its referral process. Improving its attachments in each community will help it build credibility.
Some Mainers’ Section 8 living conditions were horrid. There’s no excuse for landlords who let their tenants live in unsafe, disgusting conditions, inspectors who looked the other way or a MaineHousing structure that didn’t provide enough oversight. Ensuring that people live in clean, safe housing will require many changes and regular, independent supervision. Earning back the public’s trust will require MaineHousing to show continuous, long-term improvement.