Saturday, December 7, 2013
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."
While her random inspections never took her to any of the properties cited by the newspaper, Hawkins confessed to clearing old violations in other locations based only on a landlord's assurance they'd been fixed, not bothering to move furniture to check electrical outlets and sometimes looking the other way out of sympathy for both tenants and landlords.
"As a result, she admitted overlooking some items that should have failed," the report states.
The report also cites various communication breakdowns between MaineHousing and Avesta. When MaineHousing performed annual re-inspections of Hawkins' work from 2008 through 2011, for example, it failed almost 40 percent of the units she had passed.
"MaineHousing worked immediately with (Hawkins) to make sure changes were made to bring the units into HQS (Housing Quality Standards) compliance," the report states. "But recurring performance issues were not specifically called out or addressed."
In other words, despite clear evidence that Hawkins' performance left much to be desired, neither MaineHousing nor Avesta did anything about it.
At least until now.
Upon reading the Advertiser-Democrat article, "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 in Friday's press release. "We are undertaking the bold changes that are required to address this problem and will follow through on the recommendations outlined in the report."
Those include an immediate end to Section 8 work by Avesta in Oxford and Androscoggin counties -- MaineHousing now oversees those areas "in house" and eventually will take over all such work from Avesta and 15 other contracted agencies statewide.
The authority also pledged to beef up its inspections -- particularly of "problem" buildings, create a monthly tracking system for all violations and complaints, require photos of all inspection sites and hold formal sessions to educate tenants and landlords about their respective rights, to name but a few of the fixes.
But make no mistake about it. As MaineHousing's lengthy mea culpa makes the rounds this week, the long knives are about to get a whole lot longer.
In a press release issued just over a week ago, State Treasurer Poliquin claimed that MaineHousing's staff revealed at a recent board meeting that they "had known about these squalid conditions for at least two years."
I attended that meeting and never heard any such thing. But if Poliquin was on one of his facts-be-damned riffs before the Norway report was completed, imagine what he and his comrades-in-politics will do with 17 pages of self-scrutiny by the agency they claim can do no right.
"The timing is unfortunate," conceded Peter Merrill, MaineHousing's communications and planning director, in an interview Saturday. "But if you're going to have a calamity, I think we did a good job. We dropped everything. We rushed over there. ... I think we are taking all of the appropriate steps to respond."
That well may be.
Just don't expect it to matter.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: