Rental housing in Norway … five years later

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By Leslie H. Dixon

NORWAY — Five years after a multi-award-winning investigation by the Advertiser Democrat unearthed a series of scathing violations in several of Madeline Pratt’s Section 8 apartment buildings, a dozen of her buildings have been sold and officials say many of the problems of unruly, unkempt and unsafe housing conditions have subsided.

UNLIVABLE — Plaster bits fall and mold appeared to be building up where a ceiling collapsed outside the bathroom in a first floor apartment at 16 Cottage St. in Norway formerly owned by Madeline Pratt. The ceiling had fallen in a year before the Advertiser Democrat took this photo in October 2011.
UNLIVABLE — Plaster bits fall and mold appeared to be building up where a ceiling collapsed outside the bathroom in a first floor apartment at 16 Cottage St. in Norway formerly owned by Madeline Pratt. The ceiling had fallen in a year before the Advertiser Democrat took this photo in October 2011.

“None of it looks like that. My God. That’s horrible,” said Mary Hicks as she looked at a picture taken five years ago of the bathroom in the 16 Cottage Street apartment she moved to three years ago after Pratt sold the building.

“How can people live like that?” she asked.

Today, all Section 8 apartments in Norway, including those formerly owned by Pratt, are routinely inspected. The “fail” rate is on average with statewide numbers and no 24-hour life safety issues have cropped up in the past year, according to the Department of Housing and Health Services.

The town of Norway has also made, by all accounts, substantial progress cleaning up dangerous and nuisance properties, including getting debris from four buildings that burned down over the last five years removed , strengthening a local rental ordinance and enacting a disorderly house ordinance.

Pratt, now 95, appears to have quietly retired from the rooming house business she got into right after World War II. Twelve of her apartment buildings have been sold, 11 to a local company – Northeast Rental Housing LLC.

“What needed to happen after reports of substandard living conditions in Norway was a better way of inspecting subsidized housing units throughout Maine for compliance with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Quality Standards,” Deborah Turcotte, MaineHousing public information manager, told the Advertiser Democrat recently.

That was done quickly and today, Turcotte says the agency is seeing the results of the changes implemented to oversee some 70 Section 8 apartments that are in Norway today.

Tenants are present during inspections and instructed on how to maintain a safe place to live, and for new tenants, the agency gives them the same instructions as they are issued vouchers.

“Together with landlords, it’s getting done right away,” Turcotte said of Norway’s Section 8 inspections and those on some 3,000 other Section 8 units statewide.

SPARKLING — The same bathroom at 16 Cottage Street five years later is bright and clean and most importantly safe for the new tenant who moved in three years ago.
SPARKLING — The same bathroom at 16 Cottage Street five years later is bright and clean and most importantly safe for the new tenant who moved in three years ago.

Inspections stricter

The state severed its Section 8 contract with Pratt in 2011 after re-inspections turned up safety violations in a number of Pratt’s 12 buildings in Norway and Paris.

Re-inspections were initiated by the state after the investigation by the Advertiser Democrat into allegations of locked secondary exits and lack of smoke detectors following a fire earlier that year in one of Pratt’s downtown buildings that left 11 people homeless.

The newspaper report prompted an emergency meeting of state and local officials, tenants, landlords and other concerned residents on Nov. 4. The meeting focused on problems in Section 8 apartments and the roles Maine State Housing and Avesta, the state’s local agent, played in the situation.

“Instead of continuing with contracted inspectors, MaineHousing brought in-house all inspection services for Section 8 housing in its jurisdiction, which is parts of the state not served by local housing authorities,” Turcotte recently told the Advertiser Democrat.

“Consistency is key, and with inspectors working together and learning together, we maintain a program that’s evenly administered throughout the state,” Turcotte said.

Turcotte told the Advertiser Democrat that inspectors are much stricter now in applying the standards and they work with landlords to ensure the standards are met.

“Adherence is not simply checking ‘yes’ or ‘no’ boxes next to items on an inspection form,” said Turcotte. “We’re improving relationships with landlords to recognize them for their commitment to tenants and the Section 8 program through our new Owner Excellence Program. We’re educating them when there are questions about items that don’t pass inspection, and what needs to be done to get them to pass.”

Turcotte said it’s “simple things like carrying batteries to replace dead ones in smoke detectors, helping move easy-to-move items that are blocking egress, or changing broken light bulbs that could pose a fire danger. No longer are we saying that they have 24 hours to fix fail items such as these and we’ll come back in a day or two and check.”

Denise Lord, communications and planning manager for Maine Housing, said the fail rates are on average with other Section 8 units across the state.

Some of the “fails” inspectors have found in Norway apartments include the need for a furnace to be serviced, debris in common hallways, outlets not GFCI or not working properly, dirty bathroom exhaust fans, deteriorated paint on exterior walls, improper discharge pipes on hot water tanks, tenant wear and tear issues, such as holes in walls and damaged doors and more.

The move at the state level to improve housing conditions for Section 8 tenants has been reinforced by action at the local level by officials and voters who have firmed up the town’s rental ordinance and enacted a disorderly house ordinance.

The ordinance gives town officials more leverage to deal with landlords who have unruly tenants – something that Madeline Pratt blamed for many of her problems.

Blamed tenants

Pratt began buying buildings to house many of the workers in the then-bustling factory town right after World War II. Her first was a rooming house on Alpine Street. She made sure they were kept clean and even washed the workers’ bedding.

By 2011,  she owned some 16 rooming houses and apartment buildings.

She was familiar with the Section 8 program and would later say even responsible for it coming to Norway.  As a landlord back in the 1970s, she and other local landlords banded together to form a landlords association that worked to provide cheap and clean housing that could accommodate Section 8 tenants. Pratt even took in teens who were identified by the school district as being homeless and in need of emergency shelter, according to newspaper reports.

But by the 1990s, police were responding to unruly tenants in her buildings as many as 210 times in one year. Her apartments were being trashed and several burned to the ground.

In 2011 when the Advertiser Democrat’s investigative reports brought Pratt’s buildings into the national spotlight, Pratt was publicly blaming her tenants for much of the problems.

“I’ll tell you right now, the people we’re dealing with today should not be in new construction,” she told a reporter at the Sun Journal  at the time. “You should see these houses when they move out.”

She cited trash, dirty “flushes” and other unsanitary conditions brought on by tenants.

“It’s not fair; there’s not much we can do about it,” she said.

Now a mere five years later, the owners of Northeast Rental Housing – Peter Marcinuk and his son Jared say it took a lot of money and time, but they feel confident the housing they purchased from Pratt is clean and safe.

“We go right through everything,” Jared Marcinuk of Northeast Rental Housing, which in the past five years has purchased 11 of the 12 Pratt buildings to add to its housing stock throughout Oxford Hills.

Today only two of Pratt’s former 12 apartment buildings are under Maine Housing, which are still inspected by MaineHousing inspectors.

While only two of the former Pratt buildings owned by Northeast Housing are inspected under the Section 8 housing program, Marcinuk said all their buildings must be up to fire and safety codes.

Hicks had only good things to say about her landlord Peter Marcinuk.

“He’s always here,” Hicks said when she needs to call Marcinuk for any issue. Hicks said Marcinuk has bought most of the apartment buildings surrounding her home and made them code compliant and attractive to renters.

“Even the shed,” she said of improvements made on the buildings owned by Marcinuk.

Better oversight

One of the first things Northeast Housing does when it purchases a building is to bring Norway Code Enforcement Officer Joelle Corey-Whitman and Fire Chief Dennis Yates through the building to find out what needs to be done to meet the fire and code standards, said Marcinuk.

For example, one of the former Pratt buildings at 17 Deering St. , which was converted from a rooming house to an apartment building earlier this year, was considered unsafe for the tenants in 2012 because of old knob and tube wiring, town officials say.

That issue was immediately rectified after being identified by the owners and town officials after the purchase.

Marcinuk said it has been a slow process to ensure they had the money to fix up the buildings as they bought them.

“We’re proud of having fixed up a lot of those buildings to made them compliant with state and local code. Our job, like a lot of landlords in the area now, is to provide quality housing to people here in the area,” Peter Marcinuk told the Planning Board earlier this year.

The town has also stepped in to help the situation by writing and having town meeting approval of a Disorderly House Ordinance in 2012.

The ordinance, in part, has allowed the town to set up a consent agreement with landlords who own disorderly houses or bring them to court if they do not work with town officials.

The latest consent agreement under the ordinance was, ironically, with Oramell Pratt, son of Madeline Pratt, for a disorderly house at 7 King St.

Officials are encouraged that this time, the landlord appears to be successful in taking action to control what his mother found difficult to do without the proper controls in place on both a local and state level.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net