January 8, 2012

Bill Nemitz: MaineHousing failure – not the fix – will likely be focus

The timing, at least for MaineHousing, couldn't be worse.

"MaineHousing Director Welcomes Audit Report," read the headline atop the press release put out by the state's housing authority late Friday. "Dale McCormick says substandard properties in Norway were unacceptable; bold changes in Section 8 voucher program under way."

More on the Norway debacle in a minute. First, let's review the backdrop against which it's playing out.

For months, the quasi-independent MaineHousing has been under constant fire from State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, who sits on the agency's board of commissioners, for what he claims is a "lack of cost control and accountability" in the delivery of much-needed housing to low-income Mainers.

More recently, Gov. Paul LePage has suggested that if he could just get his hands on MaineHousing's purse strings -- which, by law, he can't -- he could with a stroke of his pen eliminate a big chunk of the alleged $220 million shortfall plaguing the Department of Health and Human Services' MaineCare program.

Then there's that legislative bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Sanford, that would make MaineHousing's executive director more "accountable" to the authority's board. Currently, the position remains above the daily ebb and flow of politics via a four-year appointment by the governor.

(Or, to put it more bluntly, Courtney's yet-to-be-unveiled proposal likely will enable a board now controlled by Poliquin and four recent LePage appointees to pull the rug out from under the embattled Executive Director McCormick -- a Democrat appointed by former Gov. John Baldacci to serve until 2014.)

Bottom line, these are not the best of times for McCormick and the rest of the MaineHousing staff. And with Friday's release of a warts-and-all report on a recent housing fiasco in western Maine, they're likely to get worse.

It all started back in May, when a fire swept through a low-income rooming house in Norway. The Advertiser-Democrat, Norway's weekly newspaper, covered the fire and heard talk of blocked secondary exits, missing smoke alarms and other safety hazards.

Much to their credit, the newspaper's editor A.M. Sheehan and assistant editor Matt Hongoltz-Hetling decided to look more deeply into the community's stock of federally subsidized "Section 8" housing for low-income residents.

Their 7,700-word expose, "Slumlords, shoddy oversight, tax dollars ... living on Section 8," appeared in late October along with graphic photos of a moldy bathroom with a collapsed ceiling, a poorly mounted electrical circuit box, a bathtub caked with waste from a backed-up drainage system and other way-beneath-livable conditions.

Going only by their first names, tenants of six buildings highlighted by the newspaper told of outlets that sparked whenever a plug was inserted into them, fire escapes that were barely attached to outside walls and sewage that flowed up into a bathroom sink whenever the toilet flushed.

They also spoke of Kay Hawkins, who worked as an inspector for Avesta Housing, a Portland-based nonprofit development firm hired by MaineHousing to administer the agency's Section 8 programs in Androscoggin, Oxford, Cumberland and York counties.

"She doesn't do crap," one tenant named "John" told the newspaper, referring to Hawkins.

John wasn't kidding.

Immediately after the Advertiser-Democrat story ran, MaineHousing launched an in-house investigation by internal auditor Linda Grotton, who reports directly to the board of commissioners.

Grotton's 17-page report, completed and immediately released Friday, surely will amplify the Republican drumbeat already surrounding McCormick. But at the same time, it portrays an agency reacting quickly and comprehensively to what by all accounts was a slow-motion disaster.

Inspector Hawkins, who was immediately fired by Avesta and is not mentioned by name in the report, told investigators she had become "jaded" after 11 years on the job and admitted, "Sometimes, I feel like it doesn't matter anymore."

(Continued on page 2)

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