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Widespread hazards found in Amherst's low-income housing program

WASHINGTON – A contractor for Amherst approved substandard low-income housing in 90 percent of the units that federal investigators studied, according to an audit that found widespread electrical hazards and other problems ranging from peeling paint to an insect infestation in the approved homes.

Of 70 housing units that auditors took a look at, 63 failed to meet quality standards and 41 were “materially noncompliant,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Inspector General said in a report released last week.

“These 41 units included 460 violations that were determined to be pre-existing at the time of the contractor’s last inspection and created living conditions that were not decent, safe and sanitary for tenants,” auditors said.

Auditors found the problems in the town’s Housing Choice Voucher program, which gives low-income residents vouchers to find housing in the town.

A contractor for the town, Belmont Housing Resources for Western New York, administers the Section 8 housing program in Amherst, which oversees more than 5,630 low-income housing units.

HUD provided the town with $24.1 million for the housing voucher program in fiscal 2015. And the inspector general found that unless improvements are made, the program could spend $9.3 million in federal funds on substandard housing next year.

The audit said:

* Inspectors found a total of 175 electrical hazards in 55 of the 70 units studied, ranging from exposed wiring to a loose light fixture dangling from a ceiling.

* More than half the units studied had problems with windows, interior and exterior doors, interior walls, ceilings, floors, unit exteriors and site conditions.

* Nearly a third of the units had plumbing problems, and more than a quarter had hazardous stairways or handrails.

* Individual units had mold on a ceiling, an insect infestation in the corner of a bedroom, and missing plaster and chipped paint in a bedroom occupied by a 6-year-old.

Auditors also found that while Belmont did inspections in response to 634 tenant complaints over an 18-month period, the problems they found took more than a month to resolve in 225 of those cases.

Auditors blamed the problems on poor oversight and inadequate training of housing inspectors, and said the town didn’t oversee the housing program adequately.

The HUD inspectors recommended that the town make sure the problems found in individual housing units are repaired. Auditors also said the town should implement procedures to make sure the problems don’t recur.

In addition, the inspector general said the town should reimburse, from its own funds, $118,060 in federal funds that were spent on ineligible costs – such as administrative fees – in connection with the substandard housing units.

Auditors said they came to their findings through work performed from March through September of this year.

In a written response to the audit, Amherst Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein agreed with most of the audit’s findings and vowed corrective action.

“There are indications that inspectors did not routinely and systematically inspect electrical outlets for proper grounding or polarity, as evidenced by more than 100 citations of that particular deficiency,” Weinstein wrote. “There is no reasonable justification for missing handrails and non-existent pressure relief lines on water heaters.”

The town has contracted with Belmont to manage the housing voucher program since 1977. Weinstein said Belmont is making changes in response to the audit, including increasing the number of housing inspections, firing a poorly performing housing inspector and developing a more detailed procedure for handling tenant complaints.

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