Housing Choice Vouchers is a federal program that helps low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled afford safe and sanitary housing in the private market. Also known as Section 8, this program provides rental subsidies that are vital to making ends meet for many families.
Throughout the country, the federal funds are administered by state and local public housing authorities. In our state, the Maine State Housing Authority performs the bulk of this important work.
Last fall, alerted by newspaper reports and concerns of an Oxford County fire chief that federal funds were going to landlords who failed to maintain subsidized properties at acceptable health and safety standards, I asked the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to conduct a thorough audit. The final report, which was just issued, provides further proof that, under its previous leadership, Maine State Housing failed to live up to its mission of helping low-income Maine people live in decent, safe, and affordable housing.
For this audit, HUD inspected a representative sample of 61 Section 8 housing units administered by Maine State Housing throughout Maine. Of those, 53 failed and even worse, 28 of the 61 units, nearly half, had emergency or life-threatening violations requiring immediate correction.
These violations ranged from leaking roofs, mold and mildew, and broken plumbing fixtures to exposed electrical wiring and faulty propane connections. No one should ever be living in federally subsidized housing that fails to meet basic health and safety standards. Certainly, the American taxpayers should not be footing the bill for shoddy units.
This crisis was brought to my attention early last November in a letter from the Fire Chief in Paris, Maine, which included a copy of an alarming investigative report published a few days earlier by the local newspaper. For that report, the Norway Advertiser-Democratinspected more than 125 Section 8 units in Oxford County and uncovered shocking violations, poor oversight, and wasted taxpayer dollars.
I immediately called upon the HUD Inspector General to investigate. As a leader of the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations, I was concerned not only about the well-being and safety of tenants in Maine, but also about the larger issue of federal funds subsidizing improper housing nationwide. More than 2.1 million American households rely on the Housing Choice Voucher program at a cost to taxpayers of nearly $19 billion.
I believe that the unacceptable conditions revealed by the HUD investigation are being corrected by the new management team that has led Maine State Housing since last spring. One significant change already in effect is that it no longer hires outside agents to conduct property inspections, but takes on that responsibility itself. Furthermore, Maine State Housing has committed to inspecting every one of the 3,200 units it oversees.
In addition to recommending significant improvements in inspection quality control, the HUD Inspector General has recommended that Maine State Housing repay the nearly $200,000 it wasted on substandard housing. In a separate financial-management issue, the HUD Inspector General is also questioning the propriety of nearly $112,000 Maine State Housing paid to a technology consultant through a noncompetitive procurement process.
One of the strengths of our society is the willingness of citizens to speak up, and the Paris Fire Chief and the Norway newspaper should be commended for doing just that. Going forward, Maine State Housing must not only be steadfastly committed to ensuring safe and healthy housing