by Leif Parsell
Maine State Housing Authority staffers continue to offer few answers to questions surrounding the handling of the Norway Apartment debacle that has dogged the agency in recent months. Those questions arose at the recent December MSHA board meeting and included an observation by board chair Peter Anastos that the deplorable conditions and the terrorizing of tenants in the subsidized housing units had come to light only because of the hardhitting coverage of a local newspaper.
What also seems clear from the discussion is that even then, it was the actions of local officials — and not MSHA and not Avesta Housing — who initially called attention to the situation — by contacting the office of US Senator Susan Collins. Avesta held the contract with MSHA for inspection of the units.
While both agencies have laid blame on an individual inspector hired by Avesta, MSHA officials have begrudgingly admitted to an inadequate system of checks and balances and have not yet offered definitive solutions beyond getting rid of the landlord and the inspector in question. And although Avesta has given up its inspection contract for two counties (including Oxford, in which Norway is located), it has held on to inspection contracts for two other counties.
MSHA staffers also sidestepped questioning by Anastos over how early — or exactly when — the US Department of Housing and Urban Development was contacted — and what office initiated a report to HUD. The Section 8 rental assistance status of the tenants involved in the Norway situation falls under the state jurisdiction of MSHA which is in turn answerable to HUD regarding administration of the program. Anastos suggested that the office of Senator Collins may have been the first to notify HUD of the Norway housing problems.
Section 8, a federal program administered in Maine through companies such as Avesta under the supervision of MSHA, allows low-income citizens to use a voucher on the rental unit of their choice. These units are inspected to ensure that they meet certain safety and living standards. However, a series of exposes by the local Advertiser Democrat newspaper revealed egregious failures to properly maintain properties at the Norway complex, and raised significant questions about accountability and proper oversight.
MSHA hired Avesta Housing of Portland to perform inspections of Section 8 housing in four counties, described at the meeting as a $400,000 contract. According to MSHA staff members Amanda Bartlett and Linda Groton, there had been “red flags” that Avesta’s inspector, Kay Hawkins, was giving passing grades to units later deemed unacceptable by MSHA spot-checks. These units were described by the Advertiser Democrat in a series of investigative reports, including stories of broken fire escapes, doorless units, and waste bubbling up in the sinks. Groton called Hawkins a “rogue inspector,” saying that MSHA and Avesta staff had simply not connected the dots to identify what later evolved into a serious problem. MSHA staff did not identify the specific red flags when pressed by board members.
MSHA board chairman Peter Anastos described his frustration with MSHA’s lack of oversight, saying it was “inconceivable that this took place for more than two years, and without the Advertiser Democrat’s articles, may have not yet come to light.” Board member Don Capaldo Jr. said that, in interviews with tenants and inspectors, he was given the impression that oversight on landlords is poor because of a concern for putting people on the street if their units failed to pass inspection.
Bartlett and Groton told board members several actions to rectify the Norway situation had been taken, including the disbarment of landlord Madelyn Pratt from taking section 8 voucher clients, dismissal of the inspector, an increase in the MSHA spot-check inspections from annual to quarterly, and the termination of Avesta’s inspection contract in Oxford and Androscoggin counties. Avesta is still in charge of inspections in Cumberland and York counties.
Concerns were also raised at the meeting about whether the issues at the Norway complex had been properly reported to HUD. Bartlett said that MSHA had contacted HUD “early on,” but was countered by Anastos, who said Senator Collins’ office had told him HUD was unaware of the issues when her office contacted them.
Anastos and other members of the board also expressed great concern over information divulged at the meeting that many of the Norway tenants had allegedly been intimidated by the landlord’s grandson, Christopher Fitch, into not reporting claims or cooperating with MSHA. Fitch was convicted of being an accomplice to the murder of elderly Norway hay farmer Lucien Frechette in 1988, and served three years in prison before his conviction was overturned on appeal. Since then, he’s had a series of legal problems, including an arrest for attempted theft, criminal terrorizing, and possession of unlawful substances.
The level of involvement of HUD in the Norway situation is still unclear. Senator Collins’ office would not offer comment on the issue, or on the specifics of her involvement with the case.
Read the original Advertiser Democrat story here: http://www.advertiserdemocrat.com/featured/story/025-42-news-2011-housing-draft2-267wo-photos