This building at 31 East Oxford St. was condemned in May for a landlord’s failure to comply with a court order to tighten management of the disorderly house, and some innocent tenants lost their place to live. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Portland’s unprecedented decision to condemn an apartment building after declaring it a disorderly house may lead to stronger rights for tenants who can be forced onto the streets through no fault of their own.

The proposed changes come after the city condemned a three-unit apartment building in East Bayside last spring – effectively kicking out several innocent tenants – when the landlord failed repeatedly to address issues such as frequent police calls and then failed to meet obligations set out in a court order.

It was the first time since the city’s Disorderly Houses ordinance was enacted nearly 20 years ago that the city had to take such an extreme measure against a landlord, and it highlighted the need to include tenants who may be unjustly affected by a landlord’s failure to meet his or her obligations under the ordinance.

Landlord Clark Stephens’ non-compliance led the city to take extreme action against him in May.

The changes are supported by Pine Tree Legal, which provides free legal services to low-income people and seniors. The Portland nonprofit represented several of the East Bayside tenants who were losing their homes, even though they were not the ones causing the problems.

Pine Tree attorney Katie McGovern, who helped win some of the affected tenants more time to find new apartments, filed a lawsuit against the city in July, claiming that the lack of an appeals process for tenants makes the ordinance unconstitutional. McGovern said that case is still pending, and she declined to comment on whether it would be dropped if the city passed the ordinance changes.

“The goal of the updates is to ensure that tenants have notice and an opportunity to be heard before being displaced as a result of actions under the disorderly house ordinance,” McGovern said. “The proposed revisions would mean that tenants would have notice before they are displaced through a condemnation action under the disorderly house ordinance, and notice when the city is beginning a land use action against their landlord. Tenants should know if the city has begun legal action that could eventually lead to condemnation or other actions.”

PROVISIONS IN PROPOSED CHANGES

After the city condemned the apartment building at 31 East Oxford St. and tenants were evicted, landlord Clark Stephens eventually agreed to board up the building and list it for sale. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Portland first adopted its disorderly housing ordinance in 1998. It classifies a building with five or fewer apartments as a disorderly house if police have responded to at least three substantiated calls for service for general disturbances or any incident that involves an arrest or suspicion of criminal activity within a 30-day period. That threshold increases to four service calls for buildings of six to 10 units and five calls for those with 11 units or more.

The proposed changes, to be reviewed Wednesday by the City Council’s Housing Committee, would require the city to formally notify every tenant in an apartment building being condemned under the ordinance at least 30 days before the property is posted against occupancy, and would require the city to list each tenant as an interested party in any lawsuits the city brings against the landlord.

When evictions are ordered under the ordinance, the city would require landlords to formally evict tenants by filing paperwork with the courts, rather than simply not renewing rental agreements. This change would force a landlord to provide evidence that tenants are being evicted for good cause, while also ensuring that tenants have an opportunity to defend themselves. That is not the case when a landlord chooses not to continue to rent to at-will tenants – a process that housing advocates described as a “no-cause” eviction.

“We think these revisions would reduce the risk that the disorderly house ordinance will increase homelessness, and (would) provide due process to tenants,” McGovern said.

City officials, however, push back at McGovern’s assertion that the ordinance, as currently written, is unconstitutional.

Neighborhood Prosecutor Richard Bianculli Jr. said city officials gave 30 to 60 days’ notice to residents that the East Bayside building was being condemned, by placing notices on the doors. And many of the residents had complained directly to the city about poor living conditions in the building and were aware that the city was taking action.

“This is going an extra step saying we need to serve people in-hand,” Bianculli said.

He said the changes, which were drafted in concert with Pine Tree Legal and community policing coordinators, will help codify the need for individual tenants to be notified when legal action is being pursued against a landlord.

NON-COMPLIANCE TO CONDEMNATION

The proposal stems from the city’s decision to condemn the apartment building at 31 East Oxford St. in May. In addition to excessive police calls for suspicious and drug-related activity, the building had other code and life-safety issues.

Landlord Clark Stephens had failed to comply with a court order to tighten management of his property. The order required him to evict all of the tenants, conduct background checks on any new tenants and turn over management of the property to a professional firm.

Ultimately, the city condemned the building and Pine Tree Legal intervened on behalf of several tenants. The nonprofit successfully delayed the eviction to give low-income and, in some cases mentally ill, residents more time to find affordable housing in Portland, which has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

One of those residents was Margaret Peters, who ended up at 31 East Oxford St. after losing an apartment on Grant Street. The apartments at 61-69 Grant St. had been sold and the new owner removed more than a dozen tenants so the units could be renovated and leased for rents higher than a housing voucher could support.

Peters, who was interviewed by the Portland Press Herald and had complained that the East Oxford Street building was unsafe, wanted desperately to leave East Bayside, but found it difficult to find a landlord willing to accept housing vouchers in Portland, where demand for rental units continues to be high.

Peters, 56, never did move out and died of a heart attack alone in her third-floor apartment in August.

McGovern said she was not at liberty to disclose what happened to the other tenants. But city officials believe that one or two of the residents may have ended up at the homeless shelter, while the others were able to find apartments in Greater Portland.

Stephens later agreed to board up the building and list it for sale by September. The building is currently for sale for $450,000, according to online real estate listings.

Stephens’ attorney, John Branson, did not return a request for comment Monday afternoon.

CONDEMNATIONS ARE A RARITY

Bianculli stressed that in the vast majority of disorderly house cases, landlords are willing to work with city officials to address the issues leading to police calls. He said there are currently only three properties that have the potential to be designated disorderly houses – so-called hot spots – in the city.

But even after a property is declared disorderly, it takes extraordinary measures for a building to be condemned.

“It’s kind of obvious how flagrant you have to be to have something like a condemnation of your property happen to you,” Bianculli said. “It was an unprecedented level of non-responsiveness.”

Bianculli said Stephens appears to be making progress toward meeting his obligations for his other property, which is 32-34 East Oxford St./29 Anderson St., a corner building that has been declared disorderly in the past.

“There’s a short leash for Clark Stephens on that property,” Bianculli said. “Hopefully (condemnation) doesn’t happen again in the future.”

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

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