By Carol McCracken (Post # 2,527)
The Housing Safety Office is and has been overwhelmed with landlords coming in to city hall to register their rental units, responding to telephone calls, incoming mail and related matters – all to enable landlords to comply with a new city ordinance that the Portland city council approved last fall. The ordinance requires landlords to register with the new office to make them accountable in the event units do not meet city safety standards. The deadline for registration was January 1, 2016 and enforcement has been deferred until February 1, 2016, although that interpretation is confusing to many.
The office that consisted of two people has recently grown to three – Allison Fisher, a temp, has been added to the office fielding telephone inquiries and assisting landlords coming into the basement office to register their rental units. Ian Hausel is also on the staff. The huge workload was anticipated according to Art Howe, Administrator, of the newly formed Office.
As of late this afternoon, the Housing Safety Office, administered by Art Howe, had processed 1,300 landlords. Close to 2,000 landlords have begun the process. Itt has been determined there are 4,000 landlords owning property in Portland. So far, $129,651.50 has been billed to landlords. Of that amount $62,443.50 has been paid, leaving $67.208.00 outstanding. The fees collected will pay for the expenses involved in the administration of this office.
The new Office was the recommendation of a city task force convened by former city employee Sheila Hill-Christian in response to a fire on Noyes Street in which multiple lives were lost. No tenants were seated at the task force, a sore point for many in the community. The landlord Gregory Nesbit has been charged with six counts of manslaughter and four counts of violation of the life safety code in that fire. It was the deadliest fire in Maine in almost four decades.
As part of the city’s task force on safe rental housing, Keith Gautreau, Community Outreach Coordinator for the Portland Fire Department, committed the Department to a major educational program city-wide on fire safety. The emphasis was to be on students. However, no word has been received from the Fire Department on the implementation of this part of the task force plan.
Most of Munjoy Hill’s wooden rental stock is among the oldest in the nation, if not the oldest. At one time, it satisfied the needs of the rental community in Portland. Landlords could afford to be indifferent to expensive repair requirements to these buildings; and many were. Deferred maintenance was the cheap way to go. But now, in many instances that deferred maintenance has caught up to landlords – some of whom where afraid that this new Office would also make them accountable for that deferred maintenance – not just safety issues. It is assumed that in many cases, the $35. registration fee will be passed on to tenants eventually.
The effect of the Portland fire has had far-reaching implications for other parts of the State of Maine. According to a report in the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, beginning last summer, the city began beefing up its safety inspections in the city. Bangor has stepped up its inspection program by trying to inspect every one of the 539 three-and four-unit apartment buildings. As of Tuesday, the Fire Department inspectors have inspected 149 buildings and 536 individual units looking for violations of the city’s safety codes. According to the report, to date, the inspectors have been pleasantly surprised by the minor offenses found. They range from “misuse of extension cords and lack of operational smoke detectors to unsafe storage of flammable liquids and blocked exists” according to the article.
A letter or postcard will be sent out soon from the Office to all landlords in Portland in the hope of getting the other landlords to comply with the ordinance soon. Quite likely this is being done because City Hall did not notify the 4,000 landlords itself personally. It relied on the media and the Southern Maine Landlord Association to inform landlords of the new ordinance and the need to comply with it, or suffer a penalty of $100.a day for not complying. Howe has said that penalty will be enforced.