By Carol McCracken (Post # 2,277)
The most controversial and perhaps most important item on the city’s Fire Task Force agenda this afternoon at city hall never saw the light of discussion. That’s because it was the last item on an ambitious agenda – the establishment of a city hall office run by a Housing Safety Official comprised of three additional inspectors and administrative support. An idea that Carlton Winslow, representing his 200-member Southern Maine Landlords Association, previously rejected because of associated costs – all in the aftermath of the devastating fire on Noyes Street last November.
Meanwhile, the much-anticipated State Fire Marshall’s report is due anytime.
Joining the Task Force for the first time was attorney Adam Lee who will be prosecuting violations of city ordinances starting soon. Lee was hired by the city council last week and took a seat at the fire task force table – the fire task that was convened by the city in the aftermath of the Noyes Street fire last November. Last week three new members were seated at the table; two local landlords, Carlton Winslow and Crandall Toothaker. An attorney from Pine Tree Legal, representing low-income tenants was also seated. No representative from the newly formed Portland Tenants’ union was seated at the table.
At the outset of the meeting, Victoria Bourret, a technical employee of the city, presented the Urban Insight Overview to the task force members. It is an in-house comprehensive site that provides comprehensive information about rental properties in the City of Portland. .It is the plan of the task force to make portions of this site available to the public – with the intention that tenants can check out complaints and other information on rental units they are interested in renting. The information could be available on multiple locations on the city’s web page said Bourret for easy access to tenants.
The value of a “risk-based prioritization” system, public education and enforcement of violations were discussed at length by the task force. The city can set up enforcement of code violations it was noted. Some might require minor changes to City Code, however. Although there is a registry for landlords to sign, it is little known and not inforced by the city. Landlords should be fined for not registering with the city or providing inaccurate information in it. The current process of sending a letter and giving 32 days to address with a follow-up letter is “inefficient and ineffective.” This needs to change with possible fines for landlords not complying. Other issues on the agenda, but not given time to explore included the use of technology, internal training and the aforementioned staffing. They will be addressed at the next meeting – in two weeks.
Winslow asked the Fire Task Force where landlords could find low-interest loans to fix up their rental units. However, landlords’ finances are not under the purview of the FireTask Force.
The Fire Task Force will meet again on Monday, January 26th and Thursday, January 29th. Both meetings run from 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm in Room 209 of the city hall. A public hearing has been scheduled for Tuesday, February 3rd.