Portland has eliminated the position of housing safety administrator that was created in 2015 in response to a fatal apartment building fire on Noyes Street, angering landlords who pay fees to support the office designed to bolster the city’s inspections program.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the decision to lay off Art Howe, who was hired in 2015, and merge the Housing Safety Office into the inspections division was made to improve efficiency and add a fourth housing inspector.

But the move, which could save the city about $40,000 a year, surprised landlords. When about 50 landlords heard the news at a recent Southern Maine Landlord Association meeting, “the room was definitely shocked,” said Brit Vitalius, the association’s president.

“There was an audible gasp when I said Art is gone, and that’s not a normal reaction when it comes to city officials,” Vitalius said.

The association put out a call to action Friday, asking landlords to contact City Hall and express their opposition. As of Tuesday, about 20 landlords had emailed Jennings seeking an explanation and expressing concern about the direction of the office, which is funded through a $35 per-unit registration fee paid by landlords.

Jennings said in an interview that he was surprised that so many landlords were going to bat for one person.

“Our No. 1 priority is public safety,” Jennings said. “I was very surprised and quite concerned with the email that has been distributed by the association. That calls into question, for me, why they would be so uniquely interested in one person’s position.”

Jennings said he decided to fold the Housing Safety Office into the Permitting and Inspections Department, which was created last year, as a way to increase efficiency.

“From an operational standpoint, it’s about creating efficiencies that lead to a better outcome,” he said. “It’s hard to have so many people siloed in their own world. If we have everyone together, we can cross-train and have people picking up the slack.”

INSPECTIONS UPGRADE AFTER TRAGEDY

The Housing Safety Office was created in the wake of the fire on Noyes Street in 2014 that killed six people. The fire investigation revealed that the apartment where people died lacked working smoke detectors, among other deficiencies.

The fire also highlighted a blind spot in the city’s inspection program: One- and two-unit apartment buildings, such as the Noyes Street apartment house, were not being inspected except in response to complaints.

The city formed a task force of landlords and tenant advocates to look at ways to improve the safety of the city’s housing stock.

At the time, the city had two inspection regimes: Firefighters inspected buildings with three or more units as time allowed, and code officers investigated apartments only when they received complaints.

City officials, as well as tenants and landlords, determined that the city’s structure of having firefighters do safety inspections with standards different from those used by code enforcement inspectors was not working.

An investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram found that inspections were inconsistent, communication between departments was hit-or-miss, record-keeping was poor and violations often went uncorrected.

The task force sought a more proactive approach, relying on education as well as enforcement, including issuing summonses to landlords who refused to fix their buildings.

In 2015, the Housing Safety Office began inspecting one- and two-family rental units and had its own director, who oversaw three new inspectors trained in both fire and building codes. Landlords agreed to pay the per-unit registration fee to fund the new office. And the city created a database for its apartments and landlords.

Since then, Jennings, who became city manager after the Housing Safety Office was established, has created a Permitting and Inspections Office to streamline the business licensing and permitting process.

With the recent decision to fold the safety office into the inspections office, Vitalius said, landlords are now concerned that their registration fees will be rolled into a general fund and the inspections program will return to the way it was before the fire.

“We agreed to that fee to have the Housing Safety Office,” said Vitalius, who served on the task force. “Now it looks like we’re paying into the general inspection fund. That was our concern from the very beginning.”

Jennings bristled at that suggestion. “We’re not going back to the old days,” he said. “I find it offensive anyone would say that. We take our responsibility for public safety very seriously.”

Jennings said the Housing Safety Office still exists within the inspections department, and the fees will still be used to fund the program. He noted that the city is hiring a fourth inspector, and said landlords can expect the same level of service.

Inspections Director Jon Rioux will oversee the functions of the Housing Safety Office. Jennings said Rioux has been a volunteer firefighter in Scarborough since 2001 and has excellent communication skills.

LAID-OFF OFFICIAL SAW PROGRESS

Howe, the former safety director, said he was put on administrative leave for two weeks until his final day, March 17. He believes that landlords and tenants were well served by the stand-alone department he helped build over the last year and a half.

“I think we really started to make a difference in raising the fire safety and risk management bar across the city,” said Howe, a former fire chief and public safety manager. “We’re certainly getting thousands of (smoke) detectors into units that were not there before and making sure exits and egresses are clear.”

City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said it is standard procedure for the city to put a laid-off employee on administrative leave for two weeks. A public records request by the Press Herald for personnel files relating to any disciplinary action or reprimand produced no results.

Howe, who earned an annual salary of $75,000 when he was hired in 2015, said he never favored landlords over tenants or vice versa. Instead, he was focused on improving housing safety. To build trust with landlords who had negative experiences with city inspectors in the past, he attended several landlord meetings – often on his own time – to answer questions.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016, the city registered 18,387 rental units and collected $442,000 in fees. That’s nearly 1,400 units more than the 17,000 anticipated, leading to $26,000 in additional revenue from what was originally budgeted.

From April 2016 to this month, the department’s three inspectors conducted roughly 2,750 inspections of 1,417 properties and investigated 304 complaints.

Vitalius said Howe, who has experience with the life safety code, communicated effectively with landlords rather than threatening them with prosecution, but he was no pushover.

“It wasn’t that he was giving people a pass,” Vitalius said. “He was able to communicate and tell people why they needed to do something. Or he would help them find another solution.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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