Report on Maine’s Section 8 housing is ‘appalling,’ Susan Collins says

J. Scott Applewhite , The Associated Press

Sen. Susan Collins

Thirty of 32 low-income housing units inspected in southern Maine recently failed quality reviews done by the federal government, according to an update provided to Sen. Susan Collins.

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.

Collins had requested last December that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general review the Section 8 program in Maine after problems with housing in the Norway area were brought to light duringan investigation by the Advertiser Democrat newspaper.

“The failed inspection rates uncovered by the Inspector General’s investigation are shocking. They indicate systemic failures by both Maine State Housing Authority and affordable housing developer Avesta, rather than problems caused by one ‘rogue inspector’ as MSHA and Avesta previously had asserted,” said Collins in a statement. “It is appalling that taxpayers’ dollars are going to subsidize housing that fails to meet basic safety and health standards.”

Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, released the report Tuesday. The HUD inspector general will release a full report at a later date.

According to the interim report, the inspector general’s office inspected units in March that had passed either MaineHousing or Avesta Housing’s inspections after March 2011. Of the 30 units that didn’t comply with HUD’s “housing quality standards,” 20 had been inspected by Avesta and 10 by MaineHousing. Some of the units contained health and safety violations, the inspector general reported.

“Also, several different inspectors, from both the authority and Avesta, were responsible for inspecting these units, and some units should not have been approved for initial occupancy because of deficiencies that would have existed at that time,” inspectors noted.

The report contains pictures and descriptions from inspected units. In one case, a picture shows electrical wiring hung over an interior doorway, which is a violation. In another, debris litters the yard and inspectors found “health and safety issues including open pool chemical containers.”

“The bottom line is people who live in federally subsidized housing should expect decent, safe, and sanitary conditions,” said Collins. “Unfortunately, this report shows that federal funds are instead going to property owners who fail to properly maintain their units. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

MaineHousing had been under increasing scrutiny since Gov. Paul LePage made appointments to the board last year. The scrutiny involved the Section 8 properties in Oxford County as well as the types of projects MaineHousing was funding, priority areas for the agency, and the amount spent per unit in development, among other issues.

Earlier this year, Executive Director Dale McCormick resigned after facing mounting pressure from new board members, including State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, and the Maine Heritage Policy Center over management of MaineHousing. McCormick could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Peter Anastos, chairman of MaineHousing’s board of directors, said the report reflects the criticism he and others have leveled at past leadership of the quasi-governmental agency.

“It confirms what all us new board members felt from the moment we got there: the focus of the agency was totally out of whack, was on pet projects, the solar, the green, the carbon — they took their eye off the ball,” said Anastos. “The most important thing they should have been doing was making sure their core mission was taken care of.”

Peter Merrill, who is serving as interim director at MaineHousing, called the findings of the inspection “unacceptable.”

“That is just miserable, it’s unacceptable and we are going to do everything we can to address it to make it right,” said Merrill. “I believe that there is a systemic problem. I think there’s no question about it.

“We have a problem and we’ve discovered it’s a bad problem and it needs our immediate, undivided attention. And it’s got it.”

Of the six inspectors who worked on the properties, only one remains, Merrill said. The others have been reassigned or have retired or resigned. MaineHousing has hired five new inspectors, with three more hires pending.

“We are going to make sure that every apartment — whether it’s in Houlton or Eliot — is going to get the same inspection,” said Merrill.

The agency also is going to increase its inspector training so everyone is consistently applying the same rules across the board, he said.

As MaineHousing started looking at the program, it used a risk-based approach, attempting to check the areas with potentially the most problems, said Merrill. But the results “suggested that the whole portfolio was at risk,” he said.

So MaineHousing brought in an independent, out-of-state inspection group that examined 500 units and found 40 percent of them failed quality standards. The inspections were done earlier this year and the agency is working to make sure that the problems are resolved. Merrill noted that units can fail an inspection for a range of problems, with minor problems such as a cracked light-switch wall plate contributing to a failure. More serious health and safety violations also lead to inspection failures, he said.

MaineHousing oversees 3,200 Section 8 units, Merrill said, and “HUD wants to inspect just about everything in the next three or four months, so we’re working closely with them to do that.”

HUD’s inspector general soon will be inspecting 30 units in northern and eastern Maine as part of its review, Merrill said.

MaineHousing had outsourced inspections of Section 8 units to Avesta in York, Cumberland, Oxford and Androscoggin counties. But the agency is taking that work back in house and already has taken over inspections in Oxford and Androscoggin counties. York and Cumberland counties will be in MaineHousing’s hands by the end of May. All of the 3,200 units statewide will be MaineHousing’s inspection responsibility by the end of September.

The report questioned whether MaineHousing had the capacity to reorganize and take those inspection responsibilities in house while also running inspections.

“Since 10 of 11 units previously inspected by the authority failed to meet HUD’s housing quality standards, we are concerned that the authority may not have the capacity and expertise to accomplish both a reorganization while effectively managing the inspection program,” the report said.

Merrill said MaineHousing has been able to hire the right people to oversee the program and to inspect the properties.

Dana Totman, president and CEO of Avesta, said several things jumped out at him after reading the HUD inspector general’s report.

“When I looked at it, it sort of reinforced in my mind how substandard housing is simply very problematic. Also, I think it shows sometimes how difficult it is to distinguish tenant activity from landlord activity,” said Totman. “It also shows a bit that an inspection at one point in time might reveal something very different from an inspection several months later.”

Maine has the oldest housing stock in the nation and a poor population. Those factors create challenges in the affordable housing arena, he said.

The report also doesn’t provide details, Totman noted, such as when the newly inspected units were inspected last. A lot can change over a few months, he noted, sometimes at the hands of tenants, sometimes the responsibility of landlords.

“I think this situation starts to shine a light on the substandard housing that exists in Maine — particularly in the rural parts of Maine,” said Totman. “I think it’s incumbent on us to do our very best in creating newer, safer, decent housing.”

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Comments

JOHN PAINTER's picture

A race to the bottom we do not want

It was clear last December when the story broke, that MSHA was not following federal HUD inspection rules, and was dodging their responsibility. I was surprised to read a MSHA employee state that there was nothing they could do to force landlords to comply with inspection. Indeed MSHA has many options, including working with landlords, terminating landlord agreements, adjudicating serious cases - such as these, and likely many others around the state.

For years MSHA has acted as if it wrote the law, and did not really have to follow the rules the rest if us do. As a human services professional this has been something I've attempted to address for years.

For example.

MSHA also prohibits people who qualify for LIHEAP assistance from receiving it due to receiving certain MaineCare services. Maine has been warned repeatedly by CMS that it can not include room and board in its Medicaid rates, however MSHA has consistently excluded income qualified disabled individuals from LIHEAP (who pay their own room and board, and provide MSHA; rent, utility and food bill receipts) because they receive PNMI services, stating that they are disqualified because the room and board is included in the cost of their services.

Sen Collins have you no shame?

In releasing this statement to the press, Senator Collins should be ashamed.

MSHA learned of these debacles last January. Under then Executive Director Dale McCormick, MSHAs immediately reorganized the inspection process and created a totally new division to inspect the units taken back from vendor agencies who administered them for MSHA. Additionally more than 28 persons were hired, (with additional inspectors still being hired), and the units publicized were totally rehabbed. All of these corrections were initiated and finished under Dale McCormick and HUD was so notified. HUD informed MSHA it was aware that the deficiencies had been corrected and they (HUD) would not publish their report, since it was no longer accurate. However, HUD did send a copy of the report to Senator Collins who, feigning outrage, used it for politcal gain while trampling over many hard working people's honor.
Senator Collins, have you no shame?

Roger Moulton's picture

Tenants and Landlords

I am not defending slumlords in any way shape or form. But the state needs to make it easier to evict these tenants that cause destruction (most of the time unreported until the tenant finally leaves). I am not a landlord and never will be but I have spoke with several very intelligent people that owned apartments in the L/A area, and every one of them said the same thing, it isn't worth it. If you want these landlords to keep there buildings up to section 8 standards then you must also make sure your tenants maintain the place to section 8 standards. Obviously the case in Norway was extreme and the landlord was at fault, but this is not always the case. Think about it, this housing is given to well deserving people that aren't capable of working and also to people with no ambition that find it easier to be diagnosed with "ptsd, or bi polar, or whatever it may be so they don't have to work and we can pay there bills. Do you think the people incapable of working are great housekeepers? and we obv know the people with no ambition aren't good house cleaners. It's no wonder we have such long waiting lists for section 8. You give these landlords tenants that won't keep the place up, won't report something that they broke, and then you hold them to extremely high standards? Who wants to be a landlord for the low life's and then be held to higher standards than most dwellings in this state could pass. And don't take that wrong, just cuz you're getting section 8 doesn't mean your a low life, unfortunately for the people that need and deserve it, the slack bags in this state that don't want to work give us all a bad taste in our mouths about welfare, section 8, ie. It's time to make changes on BOTH sides of this topic. This State could create jobs and save taxpayers lots of money if they just hired a few thousand "welfare spies" that caught the people working on the side, and dealing drugs while collecting our money. Not saying they should be like the workers comp folks who take pictures of you mowing your yard, just the ones that work under the table or have "secondary, unreported" incomes.

ERNEST LABBE's picture

Is this picture

Is this picture going to be the poster child for section eight? Is thay bathroom deplorable of course it is? However the picture was taken a year after the ceiling came down. Has the tenant not washed the floor in over a year? Apparently not. Is it the landlords job to do normal cleaning of the apartment.

Please understand this is not a letter of support for the scumlords. They should be taken off the list of section eight available housing, however one has to wonder about the cleaning habits of some of the tenants.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

The unclean tenant or the

The unclean tenant or the slumlord is like the chicken or the egg. Which came first?

Paul

the slumlord is the chicken because he bribes or makes promises to upgrade an never does so they can fill their geedy pockets. Then the egg comes along which contributes their piggyness that that is destructive in itself. When the state puts a stop to these types of landlords then maybe cities and towns can cleanup the blight.

 's picture

Section 8

Sure time that these properties that have been let go and overlooked get fixed up so they are fit and healthy to live in but these inspectors got to carry the ball and tenants should be expected and made to keep the place clean. The inspections should be both ways. Putting big holes in the walls, having a stove that you wouldn't even heat water on or a bathtub that you wouldn't wash a pig in is not the fault of the landlord. No one wants big brother looking over their shoulder every minute but because of some that have destroyed apartments before frequent inspections will have to take place and tenants will be held responsible and not the landlord. These apartments don't come with cleaning ladies and no one should be warned in advance that the inspectors are coming. If the place is inspected and approved then if its destroyed then the tenant is to blame. Its your home. Keep it clean or get out.

About Time

I hope they crack down in every town in Oxford County. Rumford and Mexico best be on that list.

Roger Moulton's picture

You're funny!

Mr. Diconzo I normally agree with everything you comment on here. But I have to say when I see you posting about rumford and mexico and things that could be done to clean up the town it makes me laugh. Now I love a strip club as much as the next guy I really do, but to see the guy that brings "bodies in motion" to Rumford twice a week talk about making changes to better the town I just have to laugh hysterically. I know I know your business is an adult business that is hidden from public and you have to be an adult to enter but really could you save me the "better rumford" talk while you have the girls from BIM in your business? lol

No you're Funny Roger!

You have me confused with a relative. So let's set you straight right now,o0k. I never freqented my relatives business because it didn't interest me. Secondly my relatiove was forced to do that because business was dying so he brought the girls in to survive. Even that didn't work. My relative has died now , God rest his soul. He worked hard and died early do to trying to save a business anyway possible and working his butt off to many hours. So Roger , I say to you, you better get people right before p0acing your comments. You owe me an apology.

Roger Moulton's picture

okay you're right.

Okay you're right I owe you an apology for mistaking you. But I must say I find it hilarious that you justify his actions so he could save his business (which I'm assuming for all the years he owned it, closing it down would not have put him in the poor house). Maybe some of the owners of the building you describe in Rumford/Mexico don't have the finances to make them pretty for you and need that income to put food in the mouths of their children. There's always more than one angle. Sorry for mistaking you, I'm not overly familiar with the Rumford area.

Wrong again Roger

I'm not justifying what he did. I'm just saying it's to bad he had to do so. The owners I'm talking about are the mslum lords who do have the money and they will do anything to keep it without bringing buildings up to code and having code officials letting them slide for some reason. The blight in my area is just that. Private home owners do a good job keeping their property looking good. It's the apartment building owners who live local and the absentee landlords that need cracking down on. It's not getting done. WHY?

Roger Moulton's picture

more

And I'm from Jay and have been known to stop by the balet from time to time but if Dave was preaching the same stuff you are I would say the same to him.

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