Dale McCormick says substandard properties in Norway were unacceptable; bold changes in Section 8 voucher program under way
For Immediate Release
January 6, 2012
Contact: Deborah Turcotte
MaineHousing Public Information Manager
626-4600 or (cell) 242-1904
MaineHousing Director Dale McCormick is welcoming an audit of the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program in Norway as an opportunity to effect change in how housing units occupied by Section 8 voucher recipients are inspected statewide.
On Oct. 27, 2011, the Norway Advertiser Democrat exposed substandard living conditions being experienced by Section 8 recipients in properties owned and operated by three landlords. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program is administered by MaineHousing and its agent, Avesta Housing, in the Norway area.
“To read in the Advertiser Democrat article about the deplorable substandard conditions in which people were living was unacceptable. It was clear to me that there was a failure in our system of quality control in the administration of the voucher program in Norway that allowed for these conditions to pass inspection,” McCormick said. “We are undertaking the bold changes that are required to address this problem, and will follow through on the recommendations outlined in the report.”
Among the changes, MaineHousing will:
- Phase out Section 8 contracts with outside agents statewide and bring the entire program in-house, starting with Avesta. MaineHousing will begin by administering the program in Oxford and Androscoggin counties;
- Implement procedural changes for inspections, and increase the number of inspections to a level that is greater than what is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development;
- Conduct quarterly housing inspector meetings to discuss laws, issues, and concerns. Currently MaineHousing conducts meetings for our agents that include inspection-related topics with the expectation that housing inspectors are informed of those changes;
- Require housing inspectors to log complaints in a tracking log that will be reviewed monthly by MaineHousing;
- Formalize ongoing education about the Section 8 program for tenants, landlords, and local officials. This includes educating Section 8 recipients on what to do if a landlord is not responsive to their concerns and what landlords should do if tenants cause damage to a property that can result in an inspection failure;
- Provide tenants with a questionnaire during annual inspections that includes questions on whether they feel threatened or unsafe in their homes;
- Organize housing fairs statewide, where Section 8-related questions by tenants, landlords, and town officials are answered and where tenants can meet with landlords to learn about vacancies.
- Partner with local fire, police, and code enforcement officials to ensure the health and safety of tenants.
Director McCormick asked MaineHousing’s internal auditor, who reports to MaineHousing’s Board of Commissioners and not the director, to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding this situation, including what breakdown in controls both at MaineHousing and Avesta allowed the situation to occur and why MaineHousing or Avesta were not aware of the situation sooner.
The internal auditor interviewed Avesta management and staff, MaineHousing management and staff and local officials. The auditor found that “without exception, everyone involved stated that they were ‘shocked’ by the living conditions” and that it appears that the “root cause of the situation in Norway – landlords who did not maintain their properties up to HQS (housing quality standards) – was ignored by a trusted Section 8 housing inspector employed by Avesta.”
According to the audit, MaineHousing and Avesta management were unaware of the substandard living conditions at the properties because they were not notified by the Avesta housing inspector, town officials or tenants. The tenants may have told the inspector about the conditions, but were unaware that they could contact MaineHousing or Avesta directly.
Also, MaineHousing employees may have tried to remedy how the Section 8 program was being administered by Avesta by answering staff questions or providing training, and may have caught or been notified of errors in inspection reports and made Avesta aware of these errors, according to the audit. But, the auditor notes, MaineHousing 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.
After the newspaper report brought the situation to MaineHousing’s attention, MaineHousing employees:
- Inspected, with Avesta, the units and gave the landlords 24-hour and 30-day repair notices on items that failed during the inspection;
- Rescinded one landlord’s ability to accept Section 8 vouchers for her properties;
- Provided new Section 8 vouchers to the affected tenants so that they could move, if they choose, from the properties;
- Coordinated a housing fair in which tenants, landlords, and town officials could ask questions about the Section 8 program and provide an opportunity for tenants and landlords to meet and discuss housing availability;
- Provided tenants with information on tenants’ rights and on how to contact MaineHousing with concerns if they feel landlords are not taking health and safety issues seriously.