By Carol McCracken (Post # 2,297)
Late this afternoon the Fire Task Force held its final meeting before proceeding to a city committee next week to consider its recommendations. The Task Force, composed of a number of city staff people, failed to seat any tenants on the task force with no creditable justification for that oversight. The Task Force is composed of two landlords, however. The Task Force was created by the city’s acting manager, Sheila Hill-Christian, in the aftermath of the 3-alarm fire last November in which six people lost their lives.
At the outset, Julie Sullivan, acting chief of staff, outlined recommendations that the Task Force has been considering to forward to the city; they include providing public education, conducting routine inspections of housing stock rather than complaint-driven as in the past, implementing a risk-based prioritization for inspections, designating a Housing Safety Official in a new city hall office and using existing technology more efficiently.
Although only several people testified during the public hearing, they were not short on ideas for the Task Force to consider. Jim Harmon, a landlord said the landlord registry that could be re-enacted should be “free” with no fee attached to it, landlords need to be given time to correct violations ,a “letter of correction” should be issued following corrective action by the landlord to erase the record, and that all rental units should be inspected. (The City has estimated there are about 17,000 – 22,000 rental units in Portland. )
Assistant Chief for Fire Safety Keith Gautreau has told the Fire Task Force on several occasions during the series of meetings that the inspection of rental apartments had been put on hold last year. It is believed that the reason for this was a budgetary issue – a lack of sufficient funds to cover all of the department’s obligations. Ed Suslovic, chair of the public safety & health committee did not return a phone call on the matter. Fire inspections are only done in buildings with three or more units so inspections would probably not have prevented the fire at the Noyes Street 3-alarm fire last November.
Carol Schiller, president of the University Neighborhood Organization, (“UNO”) and a homeowner, said she was pleased that the city would no longer “neglect our tenants as the city has done before.” Schiller read a comprehensive three-page document of recommendations. Included was one that landlords provide an evacuation plan and run fire drills in their buildings, that the city establish medical marijuana restrictions to safeguard against electrical fires on residential property and that renters be required to have renter’s insurance. Noyes, a homeowner, lives across the street from the site of the Noyes Street fire.
Carol Schiller is in the preliminary stages of working with the city to try to get approval for a memorial sculpture to be placed at Longfellow Park, near the Noyes Street fire. Grace Damon, a founder of the Portland Tenants Union is collaborating with her on this. The project will require city funds in order to complete.
Celeste Bard, owner of two rental units, cautioned the task force against imposing any more costs that would motivate landlords to sell units to be converted into condominiums – thereby reducing the rental stock even more than it already has been by condominium conversion in the City.
Tom MacMillan, a board member of the newly created Portland Tenants Union, was slated to testify at the public hearing tonight. However, he was delayed “by a more important” issue – he had been at 188 Dartmouth Street trying to determine the outcome of the city’s inspection of the property owned by Greg Nisbet, MacMillan said he received no feedback on the matter. But because he arrived too late, MacMillan did not testify at the public hearing, on behalf of the Portland Tenants Union, as had been anticipated. Nisbet also owns the Noyes Street property which could be demolished soon.
Task Force recommendations will next be addressed on Tuesday, February 10, at 5:30 pm at city hall before the Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee. Ed Suslovic, who has strong ties to the real estate industry, is the chair of the Committee.