AUGUSTA — The new leader of the Augusta Housing Authority wants the organization to take a more aggressive role in addressing what she describes as the near-crisis level lack of affordable, safe housing in the city.

Over the last year, 65 housing units were lost in Augusta, some to fires, but most were shut down by the city for safety code violations found in some of the aging rental housing stock.

That has tightened up the availability of rental housing in Augusta.

“We’re at a near-crisis situation in this community right now,” said Amanda Bartlett, executive director of the Augusta Housing Authority. “With me coming on board, it seems like a good time to look at expanding our role, so we’re not just doing vouchers. This is an opportunity for us to address a need in the community. I think the time is right to do something.”

Bartlett, who took the job in December, wants the local housing authority, which currently primarily focuses on administering the Section 8 voucher program in the area, to expand its role by potentially getting into developing, rehabilitating, building and owning housing units.

The Augusta Housing Authority is a quasi-governmental agency that administers the federal Section 8 voucher program, which provides most of its funding. Members of its board are appointed by the mayor and city councilors, and its staff are technically city employees. But their actions are independent of the city, as required by state law, according to City Manager William Bridgeo.

According to MaineHousing statistics, the average monthly rent for a two bedroom apartment in Augusta, with utilities included, is $744. It would take an annual income of $29,763 to afford that rent, according to MaineHousing, a statewide housing finance agency.

But the median household income in Augusta is only $23,878 which, according to MaineHousing, would only make that household able to afford rent of $595 a month.

Nearly 60 percent of Augusta renter households are thus unable to afford the average two-bedroom apartment rent of $744.

There is a waiting list of 675 people seeking Section 8 housing vouchers from the Augusta Housing Authority. But as hundreds of people waited for a voucher, last year 11 families gave up their vouchers because they couldn’t find a rental unit in Augusta, according to Bartlett. Some families who held the much-coveted federal Section 8 rental assistance vouchers for housing in Augusta gave them up because they couldn’t find any apartments that met federal requirements, most of which set minimum safety standards, Bartlett said.

Bartlett said when a resident receiving Section 8 housing assistance loses their housing and needs to find a new unit, it takes them an average of three and a half months to find a new unit in Augusta.

So Bartlett wants to engage the community of Augusta to try to find ways the housing authority can help do something about the housing situation.

City officials are on board with her ambitious plans, and the housing authority and city will jointly host a housing forum to discuss how the authority might play a larger role in solving housing issues.

“The City Council is very eager to have a stronger working relationship between the city and housing authority,” Bridgeo said. “And we’re quite enthused about Amanda’s ideas to broaden the authority’s role. Clearly there is a lot of need in Augusta for improved housing stock. We need more safe, clean, affordable housing.”

Bartlett and city officials hope many will attend the forum and provide input, including tenants, landlords, charitable organizations, residents, real estate agents, government officials and any others with an interest. The forum is from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 4 in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

“Everybody should be part of this conversation,” Bartlett said. “There is a lot of work to be done. To be successful, it needs to be a partnership.”

Bridgeo said there are grant programs and other funding sources that could be tapped to help improve and add housing. Some, he said, are only available to housing authorities while others are only available to municipalities.

“I think there is some question, over the last few years, that we might have missed out on some opportunities along those lines,” Bridgeo said of the potential for grant funding for the authority. “That points out the need to work hand-in-glove with each other.”

Bartlett said income-based housing or historic preservation tax credits could also be used to help provide funding for housing projects. Those were used by Housing Initiatives of New England’s Cynthia Taylor at the Inn at City Hall and for her planned project to convert the former Cony flatiron building into senior citizen housing.

Raegan LaRochelle, vice-chairwoman of the volunteer Augusta Housing Authority board of directors, said the federally funded Community Development Block Grant and other grant funds could help address the lack of quality affordable housing in the Augusta area.

“I think the board is really enthusiastic about expanding their reach and becoming more visible in the community,” said LaRochelle, who was just appointed to the board in January. “To the extent we’re able to facilitate people being able to find stable, quality housing, everyone is on board with that. There’s no downside. There are a lot of ideas milling around, and we’re going to have to prioritize and figure out what our resources are and what we can reasonably accomplish.”

Margaret Ayotte, chairwoman of the authority’s board, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bartlett said the authority already has an arm created specifically for real estate development, the Augusta Housing Service Corporation, but that entity has never really been active.

She said the nonprofit corporation has about $307,000 in funds set aside for real estate development.

Bartlett previously worked for the Maine State Housing Authority and MaineHousing and ran her own business, Bartlett Inspection Services.

In 2011, after a newspaper investigation exposed unsafe conditions in Norway-area apartments and poor oversight of the program that provided Section 8 vouchers there, she helped relocate tenants and wrote a corrective action plan.

She said seeing some of the horrifying living situations there and learning that many people in the community were aware of safety code issues in the apartments, but didn’t know what to do about them, showed her a community-wide approach is needed to address housing challenges.

Many other housing authorities, across the country and in Maine, already develop, build, rehabilitate and own housing.

In Bangor, for example, Bangor Housing Development Corp., the development wing of Bangor Housing Authority, plans to add 34 apartments in new and rehabilitated buildings this year.

Bartlett said the time is ripe, if not well overdue, for Augusta Housing Authority to play a larger role in increasing the availability of safe, affordable housing in Augusta.

Keith Edwards – 621-5647 [email protected]