FREEPORT — The editor and a former assistant editor of the Advertiser-Democrat were named Journalists of the Year at the annual Maine Press Association awards banquet Saturday.
Editor Anne Sheehan and Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, who is now a staff writer at the Waterville Sentinel, were honored for their teamwork over the past year reporting on the deplorable living conditions in public housing projects in the Oxford Hills area.
On Oct. 27, 2011, the first of dozens of stories about the living conditions in aging Section 8 housing was published in the Advertiser-Democrat following a three-month investigation by Sheehan and Hongoltz-Hetling.
That report, titled “Slumlords, shoddy oversight, tax dollars ... living on Section 8,” took readers inside rental apartments where “when a neighbor flushes the toilet, waste bubbles up in the bathroom sink.”
In another apartment, where there were no working electrical outlets, tenants had to plug everything they owned in various power strips and extension cords outside the apartment. And, in a third-floor apartment, the only way out of the building in an emergency was down the stairs because the exterior fire escape was barely attached, its nails pulling out of the wall.
Nearly every week for the next five months, Sheehan and Hongoltz-Hetling wrote about these living conditions in news stories and editorials, including details of an inspection that uncovered 96 violations in 10 housing units, the withdrawal of Section 8 housing vouchers from certain landlords, and how municipal officials responded to ensure safe housing for the community’s poorest residents.
The reports caught the attention of local legislators and federal officials. Two months after the first story, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for a federal investigation into subsidized low-income housing in Oxford County. Six weeks after that, the head of the federal Housing and Urban Development Department cracked down on the Maine State Housing Authority, vowing to hold the state agency accountable for substandard housing conditions.
Every one of the tenants found to be living in a substandard apartment was moved into clean, safe and comfortable Section 8 housing, and MaineHousing ended its contract with Avesta Housing, which had managed Section 8 rentals in Oxford County.
Last April, Sheehan and Hongoltz-Hetling were named 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalists for their work, and last week a report released by the HUD Inspector General determined that the Maine State Housing Authority mismanaged its project and failed to ensure that participants in its Housing Choice Voucher program were living in decent, safe and sanitary conditions.
In its nomination letter to the Maine Press Association, Sun Media noted that its “reporting team’s work uncovered inhumane living conditions and energized government to address — rather than continue to ignore — housing violations that caused tremendous suffering for hundreds of low-income Mainers. In the process, landlords responsible for — and profiting from — poor living conditions were denied federal housing vouchers, putting these guys out of business.”
Ed Snook, publisher of the Advertiser-Democrat, said Sheehan “saw a serious problem in the Norway area and stepped into the fray with both feet,” organizing coverage and ensuring a prominent position for reports on the newspaper’s front page.
“She and Matt showed a passion for this community that makes a small weekly paper all it can hope to be,” Snook said. “We served the public, our readers and advertisers in the best possible way.”
In its final report released last week, HUD found that 53 of 61 (87 percent) of the units it inspected as a result of Sheehan and Hongoltz-Hetling’s investigation did not meet state quality standards. As a result, taxpayers paid at least $194,956 in housing assistance for tenants who were living in units that failed to meet state standards.
The report also concluded that MaineHousing officials did not always comply with either HUD or their own policies on procurement and expenditure practices.
In response to these findings, the Office of the Inspector General to HUD has asked MaineHousing to repay $197,000 to the federal government.
In a statement following the release of that report, Collins noted that the report provided “proof that, under its previous leadership, Maine State Housing Authority failed to live up to its own mission — to help Maine people obtain and maintain decent, safe and affordable housing.”
She added, “No one should ever be living in federally subsidized housing that fails to meet basic safety and health standards, and certainly taxpayers should not be footing the bill.”
Sheehan, editor of the Advertiser-Democrat since December 2009, is a graduate of the University of Connecticut with a host of awards for journalism in New York.
She is a former editor of the Dover Community News in New Hampshire and The Courier in Chatham, N.Y. A former bureau chief at The Register Star in Hudson, N.Y., Sheehan also has extensive experience in theater as a playwright, director and as head of drama at King’s College and Oak Farm Community School in the United Kingdom.
Hongoltz-Hetling was hired to work at the Advertiser-Democrat in June 2010 and promoted to assistant editor later that year. He left the weekly paper to work at The Forecaster last March, moving to the Waterville Sentinel in June.
A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Hongoltz-Hetling owned and operated the daily Campus Newspaper Inc. in Chicago from 1997 to 2004.
The Advertiser-Democrat is a Sun Media weekly newspaper based in Norway.