The Maine representative of a New Jersey investment firm says he had no choice but to evict all the tenants in the 24-unit apartment complex the company owns in the Parkside neighborhood because the buildings are in terrible condition and have become a hotbed of drug activity.
John Le, managing director of AEG Holdings, said Tuesday that he doesn’t yet know whether the complex will be renovated or torn down and rebuilt.
“What we really want to do is make the place safer and vibrant,” Le said. “It should be a safe community in the middle of Portland.”
AEG Holdings bought the properties at 61-69 Grant St. last spring and notified the tenants Dec. 23 that they had to leave by March 1. Although the tenants had more than twice the required minimum of 30 days’ notice of eviction, about 14 of them, primarily those with low incomes, mental illness or both, are still looking for housing, less than a week before the eviction date. City officials and social services agencies are scrambling to help tenants with nowhere else to go.
“My primary concern is that these individuals will not be able to find shelter and end up back on the streets or in the homeless shelter,” said Ginny Dill, the subsidies director for Shalom House, a nonprofit that helps people with mental illness and is working with clients who face eviction from the complex. “It’s not easy to find vacancies when you have 14 people suddenly looking for apartments.”
Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which provides free legal help to low-income people, is advising some of the displaced tenants and telling those with nowhere to go that they are not legally required to leave their apartments until the landlord gets a court order. The next eviction hearing in Portland District Court is scheduled for March 10, and any evictions upheld by the court would not take effect until March 19, according to the agency.
City councilors said Tuesday that they will look into the situation, including why people receiving housing subsidies might have been allowed to live in substandard conditions and whether the city should change any policies to prevent more evictions like this or provide more housing options for vulnerable tenants.
The poor condition of the property is a complicating factor for the city.
Housing safety has emerged as a priority in Portland since a fire on Noyes Street in November 2014 killed six people. The city had received several complaints about the condition of the property, including improper storage of combustible materials and possibly illegal third-floor units. City records never indicated that inspectors toured the house.
Councilor Jill Duson said Tuesday that she has asked City Manager Jon Jennings to report to the council’s Housing Committee, which she chairs, on Wednesday about the inspection history of the Grant Street property and the city’s efforts to get code violations addressed. The public will have a chance to comment after the staff presentation, she said. The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in council chambers.
A day after Mayor Ethan Strimling said that “it’s landlords like this that give everyone a bad name,” Duson cautioned against rushing to judge the Grant Street property owner. She said the city should not vilify landlords who are looking to upgrade substandard housing, given that the city’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation. Instead, the city should be negotiating with the landlord to prevent the displaced tenants from ending up on the streets, she said.
“I was amazed at the quote from our city leadership, which seemed to be pretty out there, without first figuring out what was going on,” Duson said. “I think the city has some responsibility (for not making sure problems at the property were addressed). We can’t just jump on the bandwagon and start pointing fingers. We need to be ready for the fingers pointing back at us.”
Strimling stood by his comments Tuesday, saying the landlord should renovate one building at a time, or provide assistance to the affected tenants, rather than evicting them all. “That’s not the way we should do business in the city of Portland,” he said.
CODE VIOLATIONS, DRUG DEALING
City records show more than two decades of fire and building code violations at the property, including cockroaches, bed bugs, a lack of fire and carbon monoxide detectors, and faulty fire escapes.
The property at 65 Grant St. failed a building inspection on Aug. 4 because of an unsound fire escape. Officials were called back in September to investigate a complaint about bed bugs, which the owner corrected. However, the property failed fire safety inspections in August and September, according to city records.
Before last summer, the buildings had not been inspected since 2009.
Inspections Director Tammy Munson said the property was not on the city’s “no-rent” list for General Assistance, a designation for substandard apartments that people receiving city aid are told to avoid. The city had one General Assistance tenant in the complex at the time of the evictions, said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.
Le, who represents the new owner of the Grant Street apartments, is 32 and was raised in Portland. He left the state for seven years, working for the New Jersey-based investment firm Advanced Energy Group in New York and Boston. Le said he had the chance to move back to Portland two years ago. He formed AEG Holdings to invest in properties here, with Advanced Energy Group providing the financing.
Le said he has been working with Portland police to stop drug dealing in the complex, including providing information that led to a police raid Jan. 27 at 61 Grant St. Police seized 74.8 grams of crack cocaine and detained 13 people. Le said police told him the investigation is continuing.
Grondin, the city’s spokeswoman, said there had been police calls to the property, but she didn’t know how many. The city never determined whether there were enough calls to designate it a disorderly property because Le cooperated with the police investigation, she said.
Three to five police calls in one 30-day period, depending on the number of units, triggers a disorderly house designation and allows the city to condemn a building if a landlord refuses to take action.
Le said Tuesday that there are no solid redevelopment plans for the property. City records show no active building permits. While it could be months before the owner submits plans and obtains city permits, Le said tenants must leave.
“They have to leave because we have work we want to do,” he said.
IDEAS FOR TENANT PROTECTIONS
Some city councilors are calling for immediate action to prevent such evictions from happening again.
Strimling said Monday that he will ask the Housing Committee to consider new policies to protect tenants. He said “everything is on the table,” including rent control and prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants who get housing subsidies or evicting tenants without cause.
On Tuesday, other councilors joined the call for city action.
At-large Councilor Jon Hinck, who lives in the West End, next to the Parkside neighborhood, posted a message on social media in support of a law to require landlords to provide financial assistance to low-income residents.
“#PortlandME needs a Tenant Relocation Assistance Law. Yes, rental housing can be renovated, but low-income tenants should get assistance,” Hinck tweeted.
Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who represents Parkside and serves on the Housing Committee, said he will ask the committee Wednesday to consider a policy that provides for at least 90 days’ notification for no-cause evictions, and increases education and outreach to residents who face displacement because of ownership changes.
Thibodeau concedes that investment in housing is “a good thing,” but said the needs of tenants must also be considered.
“While they’re (improving housing), they’re pricing a good portion of the community out of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern in that neighborhood that the eclectic feel and the folks who made that area great in the last decade or two are getting priced out.”