Noyes Street fire

A fire last fall in this multi-unit building on Noyes Street in Portland left six people dead. The incident focused a critical eye on the city’s lax fire inspection program for its thousands of rental apartments. Emulating the way the city addressed the issue, the town of Brunswick is dusting off its own rental-unit inspection proposal from 2011. ​ 2014 Press Herald file photo/Carl D. Walsh

T

he apartment building fire that killed six young people on Noyes Street a year ago has changed the landscape for landlords in Portland, and beyond.

Immediately after the fire, many landlords reacted by checking smoke detectors and other life-safety features, and by making certain that tenants were not disabling the alarms or blocking emergency exits. Some landlords also began asking their tenants to sign a document promising they wouldn’t disable the alarms.

The city has reacted in the past year by taking some negligent landlords to court for the first time and by stepping up safety inspections and oversight of the city’s 17,585 rental units.

Other Maine cities, such as Westbrook and Brunswick, also have responded to the Noyes Street fire with more safety oversight of their rental housing.

Portland is now ramping up a new housing safety office at City Hall. In September, the city hired its first housing safety officer to supervise three inspectors. The $335,000 annual cost of the office will be paid by landlords through a new fee.

This coming January, landlords will have to register their properties, which will help provide the information for an online database so the public can view the inspection histories. Modeled after registries in other cities, the database would help inspectors prioritize their work by assigning a risk factor for each rental unit based on metrics such as the age of the building, type of construction, number of units, location, delinquent taxes, complaints and violations. The searchable database is expected to go live early next year.

The city has been aware of hundreds of apartment buildings with violations and has kept an internal list of troubled properties, although the information has not been shared with the public or other occupants of those buildings. Also, many properties are owned by limited liability corporations, making it difficult for the public or the city to determine exactly who is accountable.

The Southern Maine Landlord Association has emerged as an important voice and has been engaged with the city in refining policy around the registry database. At an association meeting in June, landlords discussed the fire and their property management practices.

An owner of five buildings said she and her husband inspect each unit every month. They check for leaks, evidence of smoking, and unauthorized pets or other lease violations.

Another owner said she changes smoke alarm batteries twice a year.

Brit Vitalius, the association’s president, said he makes a point of showing new tenants both exits to their unit.

“In the wake of Noyes Street, we should be thinking about this more,” he said.