NORWAY — Some tenants were given vouchers to move as state housing officials reinspected apartments in Norway and Paris on Thursday to get to the bottom of complaints of unclean and unsafe living conditions.

Dale McCormick, executive director of the Maine State Housing Authority, spent the morning in the Oxford Hills.

“We’re continuing to investigate whether the inspections were done correctly or whether they were done at all,” McCormick said. She checked  nine apartments with inspectors from MSHA, its internal auditor and representatives from Avesta Housing of Portland, which does inspections for the state.

Eighteen apartments in Norway and Paris were reinspected last week following charges of unsafe rental housing. Because of the failures found during those inspections, six vouchers have been issued to tenants to allow them to move to safer housing immediately, said Debora Keller, director of programs at Avesta Housing.

McCormick said where apartment units failed inspections last week, landlords were given 24 hours to fix safety issues and 30 days for non-safety issues.

“This is an ongoing investigation. It’s a terrible situation having people living in Section 8 and not being safe. What went wrong?” McCormick asked  after seeing apartments with no working smoke alarms, blocked fire escapes, ungrounded electrical wires and trash in the hallways.

“We are now inspecting all apartments that Avesta has, especially over here (in Oxford County) and in Androscoggin County. We’re trying to ascertain what systems broke down,” McCormick said.

Section 8 is the federal government’s program for assisting low-income families, the elderly and the disabled with housing in the private market. Housing vouchers are issued and administered locally by Avesta Housing. Avesta receives federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to administer Section 8 vouchers in Oxford, Androscoggin, York and Cumberland counties.

Currently some 1,300 residents in the four counties are serviced under Section 8 by Avesta.

The action was sparked by a three-month investigation by the Norway-based Advertiser-Democrat newspaper into the conditions in some Norway and Paris apartments. The investigation began after allegations of locked secondary exits and lack of smoke detectors surfaced following an apartment fire in May that left 11 people homeless.

The newspaper story, which prompted an emergency meeting of state and local officials, tenants, landlords and other concerned residents on Nov. 4, focused on problems in Section 8 apartments and the role MSHA and Avesta played.

Avesta said there have been personnel changes as a direct result of the situation.

“We are taking a deep look at personnel and program administration,” Keller said.

Keller said Thursday that Avesta has initiated a program aimed in part at notifying tenants of their rights, recruiting new landlords to bring in more quality housing, taking a “deep look” at the housing quality process.

Keller pointed to poor quality housing, lack of tenant empowerment and other problems that create unsafe and unsanitary conditions in housing units.

“It’s been understood that the quality of housing stock (in this area) isn’t great. But something broke,” she said. “It’s not just Section 8 units. This undermines the value of the Section 8 program and what it does.”

McCormick said she is looking at changes in MSHA’s inspection process.

“I’m open to us changing things,” she said. The MSHA has pledged to reinspect many apartment units, she said.

“There is something we can do such as adding inspections of (apartment units) no matter whether they come up in the HUD formula,” McCormick said.

McCormick said that MSHA is charged under HUD regulations to reinspect only certain apartments based on a formula that includes geographical area but not necessarily which ones need to be reinspected. Under that formula the state was required to reinspect only 68 units each year.

Because of that, McCormick said, “for a year we didn’t know there were problems in the system.”

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