Philip Austin says the four-bedroom apartment he shares with his family at 31 Oxford St. in East Bayside is frequently in need of repair
Philip Austin says the four-bedroom apartment he shares with his family at 31 Oxford St. in East Bayside is frequently in need of repair and has mold in the ceiling. But landlord Clark Stephens says he wasn’t aware of any mold problems. “I try to stay on top of everything in the building,” he said. “We pretty much fix everything, as needed.” ​ Photo by Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

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hilip Austin sat in the front hall at 31 East Oxford St. in August, waiting for a ride to work and looking at a front porch that he said had been under construction for months.

He said it was typical of the state of disrepair at the four-bedroom apartment he shares with his family in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. Told that the three-unit building was on a city of Portland list of properties with ongoing health and safety violations, Austin said he wasn’t surprised.

“This apartment should be burned down,” he said.

The building’s owner, Clark Stephens, has another perspective. He disputed some of the problems flagged by the city and blamed tenants and transients for creating others. Soon after Austin left for work, in fact, Stephens’ handyman was cleaning trash from an abutting alley.

“I try to stay on top of everything in the building,” Stephens said in an interview the next day. “We pretty much fix everything, as needed.”

Demand for good housing in Portland is an incentive for many landlords to upgrade their properties. But some buildings are languishing and considered unsafe, either because of neglect, abuse by tenants or both.

The differing views of conditions at 31 East Oxford St. highlight the challenges in identifying Portland’s worst rental properties and bringing owners into compliance.

It’s a goal made even more challenging by gaps in the city’s system for identifying and recording life-threatening violations.

In July, the Portland Press Herald asked the city to generate a current list of properties with the highest number of code violations. The intent was to examine the nature of the violations and identify the property owners.

The list contained the addresses of 10 buildings where inspectors had found multiple violations. The most troubled property had 45 violations; the four with the least problems each had 13.

Violations include fire safety, such as missing smoke detectors or blocked stairways, and building codes, such as unsanitary conditions, improper electrical wiring or holes in walls and foundations.

Inspection reports from June and July, for example, describe “Missing detector in basement. Exit obstructed; rear stairs. Fire door blocked open” at 164 Congress St. At 3 Horton Place, “Smoke detectors are missing in units 2 and 3. The ceiling in the hallway has partially collapsed and will need to be fixed.”

Such reports have not been easily accessible to tenants, and many apartment buildings are rarely inspected.

Inspections are triggered mostly by complaints. The fire department only does proactive inspections of buildings with more than three units, although it’s estimated that half the rental housing in the city is one or two units.

“There could be some buildings that haven’t been inspected in decades,” said Tammy Munson, who directs the city’s inspection division.

The city says it has an ultimate goal to inspect each of Portland’s 17,000-plus apartments on a set cycle, although it may take at least three years to have that capability. But the new database will allow inspectors to better prioritize their work, by creating a ranking of risk based on the building’s age, prior violations and other criteria. The public will be able to see a history of violations for each property, but not a real-time list of current problems.

The conditions at 31 East Oxford St. illustrate how tracking violations is a moving target.

An inspection in mid-July found violations such as garbage bags in the front stairway, windows without screens, a broken bedroom door and holes in the walls. An inspector wrote: “Clean and sanitize front hallway; conditions are unsanitary with urination, toilet paper, feces, litter, trash bags, garbage and generally not clean.”

During a visit in early August by a Press Herald reporter and photographer, the hallway appeared clean. The bedroom doorway frame and surrounding walls had been filled recently with drywall compound.

Austin, who said he has lived in the building for five years with his sister, brother and mother, asserted that there was mold in the ceiling, caused by an upstairs washing machine that floods because of faulty plumbing.

Stephens said he wasn’t aware of any mold in the Austin apartment, and that he thought the water leak was caused when the washer’s discharge hose popped out of the drain pipe. The drywall work in the hallway was being done to fix loose plaster, not for a code violation, he said.

“I’m not saying this stuff didn’t happen,” he said. “But things can be exaggerated.”

As he cleared trash from the alley, handyman Tom Roberts said Stephens has trouble with some tenants who discard trash and unwanted items in the alley. As he spoke, he worked to sort and organize a discarded carpet, broken bikes, an old fan, mop handles, an old air conditioner, an old tarp and moldy loaves of bread.

The building also is old and is hard to maintain, Roberts said. He said Stephens does his best to keep up the property.

“Clark is a real good guy,” Roberts said. “He’s one of the best landlords you could have.”