Renters looking for safe housing in Portland have a tough time making informed decisions. Municipal documentation of rental properties’ code violation history is incomplete, inconsistent and inaccessible.

As the city weighs changes to its fire safety program in the wake of the deadly Noyes Street blaze, it should address the obvious need for a comprehensive, well-coordinated inspection process that yields information that tenants can use.

There are two separate sets of records about the condition of rental properties, one compiled by municipal fire safety inspectors, and the other kept by city building code enforcement officials.

These documents don’t reflect current information. A Maine Sunday Telegram examination of records for over 30 local properties revealed that city officials didn’t know whether landlords had corrected fire safety and building code violations listed as “open” in inspection reports.

And the information that is on hand isn’t easily accessed. Tenants can look up a property’s safety record at City Hall, but that’s not a viable option for people who have to work during the hours when municipal offices are open.

A task force set up to address rental housing conditions has recommended creating a new city department. The estimated cost – $415,000 – met with questions at a meeting Monday of a City Council committee, placing the overhaul of the city’s inspection efforts on hold. But there are less expensive ways for municipal officials to improve oversight of rental housing.

The city should consolidate responsibility for inspections under one roof: either the fire department or the code enforcement office. Cross-training won’t be difficult, since there’s a great deal of overlap between the fire and building codes.

Another priority: enforcing a 1989 ordinance requiring owners to register rental units with City Hall. Many buildings are owned by limited liability corporations, concealing the true owners’ names and making it hard to inform landlords of violations and obtain compliance.

Creating an online database is obviously important, but it won’t be useful until the city takes steps to improve its information-gathering process.

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to Portland’s landlords to provide and maintain safe, secure housing. The conscientious property owners already know that; the negligent ones need to be made aware of it. The city’s role here is to enforce landlords’ rights and responsibilities and ensure that no renter has to settle for a substandard place to live.