Tsianina Smith thought that her landlord or the city would be required to tell her if the apartment she and her kids live in has any code violations that might jeopardize their health or safety.

Broken smoke or carbon monoxide detectors. Live wires in a basement. An unresponsive landlord. Bedbugs.

All those conditions were well documented in internal city records about her building in Portland’s West End. In fact, the problems at the apartment building were so serious that city officials had placed it on an internal “no-rent” list used to prevent city staff from sending rental voucher recipients to live in problem buildings.

The 40-year-old mother of three, however, never knew about the problems. Neither the property owner nor the city ever told her.

“If I knew that at the beginning,” Smith said when told about the city records, “I would have never rented from her at all.”

The six-unit apartment building at 133-135 Emery St. is among 23 buildings on the city’s no-rent list, an internal catalog of properties deemed unfit for people getting subsidized housing through the city’s General Assistance program but apparently safe enough for anyone else.

And it is one of more than 200 apartment buildings citywide with long-standing code and fire safety violations found by city inspectors that apparently have never been resolved, according to an analysis of city records by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The no-rent list – as well as the longer list of properties with pending violation warnings – is not posted publicly or easily accessible to renters. While the city does not place publicly subsidized tenants in those no-rent buildings, it allows landlords to rent these apartments to other tenants without informing them of safety issues or city warnings.

The double standard is perhaps the most glaring example of the city’s ailing housing inspection programs, which are plagued with inconsistent inspections, poor record keeping and a lack of enforcement that often allows unsafe situations to go uncorrected.

‘NOT NECESSARILY … NOT LIVABLE’

Tammy Munson, director of the city’s inspections division, said Friday that the no-rent list is primarily a tool for city staff to prevent public money from going to landlords who don’t correct safety or building code problems, although she said in an earlier interview that the city also does not want to put voucher recipients in “bad buildings.” She defended the city’s practice of allowing other tenants to live in the same buildings with no disclosure of the problems.

“Being on the no-rent list does not necessarily mean that the property is in a condition that is not livable,” Munson said in a written statement Friday. “If that was the case, we would certainly post the building against occupancy, and have done so in cases that warranted it.”

Munson and other officials, meanwhile, are part of a task force that is recommending additional inspectors and more transparency, among other things, to improve the overall fire safety program.

Jessica Grondin, City Hall’s communications director, said the city can do only so much to ensure the safety of Portland’s rental units, many of which are single- and two-family units that are not part of the city’s fire inspection program.

“We definitely own a piece of this (responsibility),” Grondin said. “But there needs to be some personal responsibility from landlords and tenants who either see things or cause issues.”

The fledgling Portland Tenants Union, on the other hand, believes the city should do more, including hiring a tenant advocate. They say the tight rental market – with a vacancy rate of nearly zero – puts tenants at a disadvantage and provides little incentive for less diligent landlords who do not keep buildings well maintained.

“In a city with such low vacancy rates and the cost of rent skyrocketing, tenants are at the mercy of their landlords,” said Tom MacMillan, the group’s treasurer, in a written statement.

AFTER THE NOYES STREET FIRE

The city’s housing inspection programs are being scrutinized in the wake of a deadly fire on Noyes Street last November that killed six young adults who were staying in one half of a duplex near the University of Southern Maine.

The Portland fire was the state’s deadliest in 40 years and happened during a particularly deadly year in Maine. In 2014, 25 people died in home fires in Maine, the most to die in any one year since 1993. Faulty smoke alarms played a role in all but two of those deaths, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.

The fire on Noyes Street started on the front porch from smoking materials that were not disposed of properly. It engulfed the front door and spread inside. Officials said the deaths were attributed at least in part to the lack of working smoke detectors and a blocked exit.

After the fire, officials said the building appeared to be operated as an illegal rooming house because tenants rented individual rooms from the landlord. Rooming houses need more sophisticated life safety measures, such as a centralized fire alarm with strobe lights.

Family members of at least four of the victims have sued the landlord, Gregory Nisbet, and the district attorney is reviewing the case to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against him.

A review of inspections records after the fire revealed that the two-unit building at 20-24 Noyes St. had been the subject of 16 complaints since 2003, including improper storage of combustible materials and a possibly illegal unit on the third floor.

Despite the complaints, no inspector conducted a thorough inspection of the building to look for life safety issues. Single- and two-unit apartment buildings such as Noyes Street are inspected only when someone complains. Even then, only the complaint is investigated.

The fire and the building’s inspection history may lead to changes at City Hall. Acting City Manager Sheila Hill Christian has formed a task force to examine ways to improve the inspection program, which is split among code enforcement, firefighters and social services.

A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation of the city’s no-rent list and its oversight of properties with known violations reveals risks similar to ones that existed on Noyes Street are going unaddressed in buildings throughout the city.

TENANT: ‘I DON’T FEEL PROTECTED’

For years, the city has kept an internal list of properties where people receiving General Assistance cannot live, said Munson, the director of the city’s inspections division. As of January, the list had 24 properties owned by 13 landlords.

Typically, a property will be added to the city’s no-rent list if the code office verifies three complaints about substandard living conditions, such as bedbugs, blocked exits, broken stairs or an unresponsive landlord, within a six-month period, Munson said. That threshold, however, is more of a loose guideline than a steadfast policy, she said.

“We don’t want to be subsidizing bad landlords (with public funds),” Munson said. “We don’t want clients, whose rents we’re paying, to be in bad buildings. That GA money is a guarantee for these landlords. It’s on time and it’s a pretty high amount. It affects them immediately.”

Monthly General Assistance housing subsidies range from $611 for an unheated unit without a bedroom to $1,476 for a four-bedroom unit with heat and electricity, according to data provided by the city.

But the list of properties deemed too unsafe for voucher holders is not easily accessible to the public. The city has never posted the list publicly, so people paying market rents could move unknowingly into an apartment that has been deemed unsafe. Munson said residents can look up a property’s safety record at City Hall. She also noted that the city is creating an online database that should increase access to information.

Smith’s apartment at 133 Emery St. landed on the no-rent list because of “life safety” code violations – including bedbugs, live wires in the basement, a lack of self-closing fire doors and a lack of appropriate smoke detectors – and because the landlord, Sulan Chau, was deemed an “unresponsive landlord.”

Smith pays her rent by holding two jobs – at a bank during the day and a coffee shop at night. If Smith had received General Assistance, she would not have been allowed to live in that building.

“It gives me a sick feeling in my stomach that those people (getting housing subsidies) can be protected and I’m not because I make too much money,” Smith said. “I don’t feel protected.”

Chau could not be reached for comment. Her number is not listed publicly, and previous numbers listed in city files were no longer in service. Calls placed to a new cellphone number provided by the city were answered by a woman who said to call back and quickly hung up the phone.

Smith said Chau was evicting her because of disagreements about bedbugs and back rent. She agreed to be interviewed by a reporter to shed light on the problems there, while other tenants in the building declined to comment on the record.

City officials said the addition of a property to the no-rent list is supposed to accelerate enforcement action, such as an increase in violation letters, legal action and in severe cases posting a property against tenancy.

Munson said the city intended to follow up with legal action at 133 Emery St., but turnover in the city’s neighborhood prosecutor position has stalled that enforcement effort since September.

Now that the city has an attorney dedicated to building code issues, Munson said enforcement actions will resume at properties with outstanding violations.

“The first step we need to do is reinspect these properties before we refer these cases to legal, because we don’t know the status of these buildings,” Munson said. “Obviously, buildings can change a lot in four months. We’re in the beginning of that process.”

POOR RECORDS, FOLLOW-UP

An independent consultant outlined shortcomings with the fire inspection program in late 2013. The report cited a lack of training for firefighters who inspect larger apartment buildings, poor record keeping and a lack of follow-up enforcement.

The report also concluded that the city needed more staff and training to meet its goal of trying to inspect apartment buildings with three units or more, as well as businesses, on an annual basis.

“In addition to the obvious life-safety risk implications for citizens, tourists and firefighters due to not completing a citywide fire safety code inspection program on a regular basis, this omission could present a significant liability should a questionable fire scenario present itself in a property that has not been inspected or has not been inspected for a long period of time,” the report says.

Among the changes made in response to the report, Chief Jerome LaMoria in early 2014 suspended the Fire Department’s proactive inspection program for apartment buildings with three units or more until more training and technology could be obtained. LaMoria said in a recent memo to councilors that inspections were halted because the inspection program required a “major overhaul” to be effective.

“The department lacked the code and inspection training at the company level, which led to inconsistency,” LaMoria said. “The decision was then made to suspend the proactive company-level inspection program to focus our efforts on existing violations.”

The newspaper’s investigation confirmed that the city’s records remain incomplete, inconsistent and inaccessible.

As part of its investigation, the Maine Sunday Telegram formally requested a list of properties that have been the subject of second notices because of outstanding code and fire safety violations. It took weeks to obtain the list of properties – more than 200 – and would have taken at least one month and cost more than $1,000 to obtain inspection records for all properties on the list.

The Telegram filed a Freedom of Access Act request for both fire and code inspection documents for more than 30 properties, which the city provided in two weeks at no cost.

The records did not include reliable information about the status of violations or follow-up actions by the city or landlords. As a result, the newspaper is not publishing the city’s reports or the list of 200-plus properties on the second-notices list.

For example, city officials could not tell a reporter whether life safety violations listed as “open” in the inspection reports had been corrected or whether the problems – such as a lack of working smoke detectors and blocked escape routes – still existed.

“That’s the big problem with this,” LaMoria said in an interview after a February task force meeting. “We knew we had weaknesses, and we’re working on those weaknesses.”

INCONSISTENT LISTS

Munson, who oversees the code office, expressed confidence that her records would be useful for the risk-assessment process that will help prioritize which buildings should be inspected. A building’s complaint and inspection history would be combined with factors such as the type and age of building construction, number of rental units, locations, tax history, foreclosure status and police calls to assess which high-risk buildings deserve attention.

The city’s much shorter no-rent list also is not necessarily kept up to date.

When the newspaper requested the no rent-list last November, it contained only 10 properties. The Telegram later found a reference in other city records to an additional building being on the no-rent list. After that omission was questioned, the city released a new list that included 24 properties.

Grondin, the city’s spokeswoman, said the first list was in the Fire Department’s records, while the January list of 24 properties was a more up-to-date list kept by the codes office.

Portland’s records do not even include a list of rental properties and landlords in the city. Many buildings are owned by limited liability companies, which makes it difficult for city officials to communicate violations to owners, who are effectively concealed.

In 1989, the Portland City Council passed an ordinance requiring landlords to register their rental units with City Hall so they could be held accountable for maintenance. But it has never been enforced.

INCONSISTENT FOLLOW-UPS

A closer look at one three-unit apartment building on Washington Avenue illustrates the problems with records and follow-ups.

According to city records, firefighters inspected a three-unit apartment building at 192 Washington Ave. on Jan. 25, 2013, and found eight life safety violations, none of which are detailed in the Fire Department’s file. An inspector’s note indicates that the owner was not allowed to rent any of the apartments until the violations were corrected, but the property is not on the city’s no-rent list.

Violations listed in a code enforcement report from May 2, 2013, include a blocked rear exit and a lack of hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

On Jan. 10, 2014, fire prevention and code officers inspected the building after seeing a new tenant moving in. The code report noted that all of the violations were still present and the “owner (was) refusing to meet life safety code.”

The building, which had gone into foreclosure in October 2013, was purchased by 192 Washington Avenue LLC. on Jan. 31, 2014.

Adam Cope, who manages 192 Washington Ave. and about a dozen other properties in Portland, said he fixed all of the outstanding code violations within 30 days of purchasing the property, but it was only within the last month that the city records were updated.

“The record didn’t reflect that (work),” Cope said.

Bronwen Williamson, 31, said she moved into one of the apartments in February 2014. Interviewed this January, she said the building is in much better condition than it was five years ago, when she lived there previously. Although she was concerned about the safety of the building five years ago, she never complained to the landlord or the city. “I was a little concerned about the fire detectors and stuff,” Williamson said. “But I didn’t think about it. (My landlord) was pretty much absent, and that was fine.”

Grondin, the city’s spokeswoman, confirmed that the new owner has addressed most of the issues.

ENFORCEMENT POSES CHALLENGES

Follow-up inspections, which are needed to ensure landlords are correcting violations, do not always occur on a regular basis.

And that can pose a challenge if the city decides to take action against a landlord.

A four-unit building at 145 Cumberland Ave. had 10 life safety violations stemming from a Feb. 20, 2013, inspection by the Fire Department, including an obstructed emergency exit, a lack of fire doors, a lack of hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and extension cords being used as permanent wiring.

However, the date of the follow-up inspection was listed as April 8, 2012 – a year before the violations were observed. According to inspection records provided in late November, the Fire Department has not conducted another inspection of the building.

In another example, a two-unit building on Frederic Street had two open violations for broken stairs and unprotected hazardous areas. However, no details about the unprotected hazards are noted in the file, and a follow-up inspection was not scheduled until 2022.

In other cases, there was no evidence in the records that follow-up inspections at properties with violations occurred at all, let alone on their scheduled date.

The city’s top lawyer, Danielle West-Chuhta, recently told the inspections task force that the city’s poor recording-keeping practices make it difficult for city attorneys to build a court case against negligent landlords.

Enforcing code violations through legal action is uncommon in Portland, even when landlords ignore the city. That is partly because officials walk a fine line: Either they can post a building against occupancy, which forces tenants out onto the streets, or they can allow those tenants to live in unsafe conditions.

“It’s always a difficult decision to displace people, because the goal is compliance,” Munson said.

PROTECTION FROM BEING DISPLACED

The fledgling Portland Tenants Union and Katie McGovern, an attorney who represents low-income tenants and serves on the city’s task force, have been pushing the city to improve oversight without condemning buildings and putting people on the streets.

The tenants union has asked the city to devote a portion of a proposed registration fee for rental units to housing tenants who are displaced as the result of a negligent landlord.

“Tenants not only need homes that are up to code, but also protection from being displaced from their homes,” MacMillan said.

The case of a 12-unit building on Congress Street shows how a rare enforcement action by the city can pose different hardships for tenants.

Residents were allowed to live at 193 Congress St. for nearly a decade with known violations.

Firefighters inspected the complex eight times since 2005 and it was on the city’s no-rent list as late as November 2014. A building of that size, according to the life safety code, needs a fire alarm system with strobe lights, and if equipped with a sprinkler system, it must be maintained to code.

Fire records, however, noted a lack of water supply to the sprinkler system, a lack of exit signs and blocked sprinkler heads.

The fire inspections file also contains a 2011 letter from Seacoast Security, saying the commercial fire alarm system was inactive and out of service. There is no indication in the fire reports when or if the alarm system was fixed.

The property also has an eight-page history with the code office for issues such as bedbugs, a lack of heat and blocked exits.

But it wasn’t until last August, when fire inspectors noticed the building’s new owner doing renovations without a permit, that the building was vacated. Inspectors found live wires in the hallways and a disconnected fire alarm system.

The issues have since been addressed and the building was removed from the city’s no-rent list.

Resident Steve Horton, 56, was among the tenants who were displaced for a month. He and his cat, King, spent the first night on the front doorstep, before staying with his daughter in Lewiston. “I was a little upset,” he said in January.

Horton has nothing but good things to say about the new landlord, though.

Now, he said, “They have good people taking care of the building.”

The new owner did not return a call seeking comment.

INSPECTIONS STILL AN ISSUE

Other New England cities, such as Burlington, Vermont, and Manchester, New Hampshire, consider periodic proactive inspections critical to their housing safety programs.

Manchester Code Enforcement Director David Albin said complaint-based systems, like Portland’s, don’t typically ensure that all housing is safe because many tenants do not know what problems to look out for or how to report problems. Manchester inspects buildings once every three years.

“You’re relying on human nature. Some people don’t complain,” Albin said. “The proactive system at least gives the city inspectors a chance to get into these buildings every three years and get the problems taken care of.”

Portland’s Fire Department is expected to resume its proactive inspections of apartment buildings with three or more units in the coming months. But Portland’s inspections task force is not recommending proactive inspections of all single-family or two-unit buildings. Two-unit buildings like the one that burned on Noyes Street account for 20 percent of the rental housing in the city and inspecting them all would cost too much money, according to officials.

Code inspectors will continue to respond to complaints and the new housing safety office, if created by the city, would inspect single-family and two-family rentals that are determined to be high-risk properties.

Julie Sullivan, the city’s acting chief of staff who is spearheading the review of the inspections program, said the city can focus its limited resources only on the buildings that pose the greatest risk.

“Proactive inspections for all of Portland’s more than 17,000 rental units would require staffing levels that the city cannot afford and would not ensure that the properties most in need of inspection were prioritized,” Sullivan said.

While it’s unclear if the city will have the money to implement the task force’s recommendations, even landlords who serve on the task force believe the city should be doing more, including regular inspections of all rental units.

“If we can’t do it in three years, there’s a problem here – there’s not enough staff,” landlord Crandall Toothaker said at a task force meeting. “Either you want to be a landlord in the field and play, or you don’t. If you don’t want to play by the rules, then you don’t play.”

He added: “There shouldn’t be room for bad landlords in the city.”