Three years after an apartment building fire killed six people, Portland is now inspecting thousands of apartments a year, including many that had not been subject to routine safety checks in the past.

But despite another recommendation that came out of the tragedy, details about those inspections are not online where renters can see them.

Beefed-up inspections and a database of rental housing were two of the changes ushered in by the Housing Safety Office, which was created in response to the fatal Nov. 1, 2014, fire on Noyes Street. The task force that shaped the Housing Safety Office envisioned the database as a tool for current and prospective tenants to learn about violations that might make their apartments unsafe. Meeting minutes show they hoped to include copies of actual inspection reports and communications to landlords.

None of those records is available online.

The existing database includes basic information about each property and reveals whether or not the landlord has registered with the city, a requirement that also resulted from the Noyes Street fire. But the database includes only vague descriptors about its last inspection. Some units have no inspection history posted. Others include a reference to an inspection that dates back more than two decades, but doesn’t say what problems were found and if they were fixed.

The entry for a building at 41 Chestnut St., for example, says it was last inspected in 1997 and that “Violations Exist.” It does not say what the violations were or whether they were corrected.

Inspection records obtained from the city show that building has been inspected several times more recently and has had ongoing violations, including pest infestations and safety issues. An inspection in June 2017 found that exterior fire escapes were in disrepair and appeared to be structurally unsound, among other things. The landlord was ordered to fix the problems before a reinspection later in the summer, but none of the more recent inspections or problems are reported on the city’s database.

People who view the database and want more information are encouraged to contact the Housing Safety Office via email or phone. Callers are encouraged to go to City Hall to look up the public inspection reports.

City of Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said inspection reports and other details are not published in the online database because they change too quickly. People might access outdated documents and not understand what the status of a property was “in real time,” she said.

“We were fearful it could do some damage,” Grondin said.

Katie McGovern, a staff attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, served on the housing safety task force and often works with low-income tenants. She has never heard of any renters using the database, and said key information is missing for the database to be useful.

“From the point of view of the tenant, it would be useful to know, were those things corrected?” McGovern said. “And how serious were those things?”

Edward Suslovic, a former city councilor who was chairman of the committee that brought forward the task force recommendations, said the council’s intent was to have inspection results more accessible to the public as a way to notify tenants of possible problems, encourage landlords to maintain their properties and allow residents to monitor the city’s inspection program. The city now posts restaurant inspection reports online for similar reasons, he pointed out. “If food service inspection reports can be made available, why can’t the housing safety inspection reports be made available online?” Suslovic said.

The apartment building at 20-24 Noyes St. caught fire in the early hours of Nov. 1, 2014. Investigators said the blaze started on the front porch in a plastic receptacle for cigarette butts and spread quickly through the building. There were no working smoke detectors, and flames blocked a stairwell that might have allowed the people trapped on the third floor to escape.

The victims were Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26; David Bragdon Jr., 27; Ashley Thomas, 29; Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham; Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland; and Christopher Conlee, 25, of Portland. Bragdon, Finlay and Thomas were tenants. Jackson, Summers and Conlee were visiting the house for a Halloween party.

The fire was the deadliest in Portland in four decades.

In October 2016, a Superior Court judge acquitted Nisbet on six charges of manslaughter in their deaths. Nisbet was found guilty of a misdemeanor fire code violation for the lack of a secondary exit from the third-floor bedrooms. He was sentenced to three months in jail but has yet to serve them pending appeals.

The fire revealed a gap in the city’s inspections program. Buildings that contained only one or two rental units, like the Noyes Street building, were not subject to routine periodic inspections the way larger apartment buildings were. An investigation by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram also found that inspections that were conducted by the city were inconsistent, communication between departments was hit-or-miss, record-keeping was poor and violations often went uncorrected.

In July 2015, the City Council adopted an ordinance that created the Housing Safety Office, which included a new team of inspectors, an administrative assistant who would maintain a registry of landlords and an online database of inspections and a director who would report directly to the city manager. The city eliminated the director’s position in March of this year and merged the Housing Safety Office into the inspections division.

Landlords were required to register their units annually and pay a $35-per-unit fee to help pay for the new office. The city reported more than 18,000 units were registered in 2016. Landlord fees amounted to $501,650 that year.

While the fire department continues to inspect residential apartment buildings with more than three units, the Housing Safety Office inspects one- and two-family rental units. It reported more than 1,383 inspections from May 2016 to May 2017, including 972 two-family, 238 one-family home and 86 condos. The fire department completed 3,060 in 2016 and 1,422 through July 2017.

The online database of apartments launched in the summer of 2016.

Carleton Winslow, a Portland landlord who served on the task force, said other recommendations, such as educational outreach, also aren’t being acted upon the way the task force recommended. He said he wants the office to be audited, so the public can see how its money is being spent.

“I’m not frankly surprised that the database is probably incomplete,” he said.

Grondin said the database might look different in the future. But it is unclear whether more information will be accessible online.

“We are in the process of implementing Tyler Technologies for our database systems and our team working on implementation will be discussing ways in which we can offer a more user friendly experience for this database,” she said in an email. “I can’t say for sure right now how it will be different, but it’s fair to say it is likely to change.”

Staff Writer John Richardson contributed to this report.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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