June 15, 2013

Fires put crunch on Augusta rentals

Besides the 26 destroyed by fire, more than two dozen other apartments were declared unfit for occupancy in the last year.

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - Within the past year, the city has lost 26 apartments to fires and 25 others have been declared unfit for occupancy.

click image to enlarge

Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton, left, and Augusta firefighter Arthur True inspect an apartment in the city. Several buildings throughout the city of Augusta have been cited for safety shortcomings.

Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

That's putting a crunch on the local rental market, as landlords work to bring old buildings up to a 2009 life/safety code. Adding to the problem is that no new apartment units opened in that same period, according to city records.

Posting a building as unfit for occupancy is not an action taken often, and it has led to a lower vacancy rate in the city, according to some apartment managers.

"There are few instances we even consider doing something that drastic," said city Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton. "Once we see a certain level of noncompliance, we post it as unfit for occupancy. We get a lot of requests and we go into a lot of buildings, and there have been only four out of 40 or 50 (apartment buildings) where we said we don't think it's appropriate to allow people to remain here while repairs are made."

Few postings are as dramatic as one a year ago, when tenants arriving home with a car full of groceries were told their 11 State St. building was not safe to occupy because of the condition of the porches and front decks that provided access to the apartment units.

Three of the four families and a total of six children had to find a new place to live.

Today, no improvements are visible from State Street, and Overton said it appeared vandals had gotten into the building and ripped out all the copper piping.

Many times, landlords make the required repairs to the posted buildings.

"The owner retains ownership," Overton said. "We're not condemning it, just not allowing it to be occupied until it's fixed up."

The order means that tenants must vacate immediately, and Overton said the city offers assistance in finding other housing for those people who are displaced.

"We'll go with health and welfare representatives," Overton said. Workers interview the tenants and refer them to temporary housing and/or other agencies.

Ryan Chamberland, the owner of an eight-unit building at 26 Pleasant St. that burned May 23, is awaiting word from insurers and engineers before making a final decision on rebuilding.

Just two days before the fire, tenant John Murray, 62, called the city to request an inspection to address safety concerns he had about his unit. Murray was pulled from the fire by a passer-by but later died of his injuries. The fire began in his unit and was related to a stove or toaster oven.

Chamberland said the city is encouraging him to repair the building.

"The city wants us to rebuild because of the depletion of apartments in the Augusta area," Chamberland said last week.

City officials, including Overton and city Development Director Matt Nazar, said there's always a need for good rental housing. In total, the city has 499 apartment buildings and 3,487 apartments, according to the city code enforcement office.

"The vacancy rate has decreased over the past year, and that's due to these people being displaced," said Ray Dobbins, property manager for PLD Groups, which manages 132 units, mostly in Augusta but also some in Hallowell and Winthrop. He said only four of the company's Augusta units are available.

On Tuesday, Overton inspected 80 Chapel St., one of the buildings managed by PLD, at the request of a tenant, and gave Dobbins a list of improvements needed and a time frame for completion.

"There will be some upgrades we're going to have to do: fire-proof doors and possibly installation of sprinklers," Dobbins said.

The rules being enforced are set by the National Fire Protection Association. They cover fire safety, including the number of exits from a unit, egress windows, smoke detectors and electrical systems.

"We're trying to work with code, not against code," Dobbins said. "We want to stay in business and give people a safe place to live. Ultimately, it's the tenants we're trying to protect."

Dobbins said PLD has a number of apartments that qualify as low-income housing and the group works closely with the city, the Augusta Housing Authority and the voucher program.

Dobbins said rent for a two-bedroom apartment runs $600 to $700 a month, and heat and hot water would be included in most of the units.

While upgrades are taking place, 80 Chapel St. remains fully occupied.

That's not true in all cases, however.

Gregory Roy, a landlord with two buildings in Augusta and a Realtor affiliated with The Maine Real Estate Network, said he was starting his first vacation in seven years in February when he received phone messages from city officials indicating tenants had to vacate his 32 Court St. apartment building immediately because of code violations. He said the notice of deficiencies caught him off guard.

As in most cases, a tenant asked the city to inspect that building because of safety concerns.

"We went in and found that the building was not in compliance with the 2009 Life Safety Code to such a severe level of noncompliance that we felt it was a fire hazard and threat to life and property and ordered tenants to immediately vacate," Overton said.

The tenants voluntarily complied.

In order to reopen, the building must be brought into full compliance with the code as it relates to existing apartment buildings.

Roy, who has owned the building for 17 years, said he was told initially he had to rip out the kitchens and bathrooms in the building, which dates to around 1900, according to records in the city's assessor's office.

"Once I got back and we all reviewed everything, the only thing that needs to be done in the units is to add a larger window to qualify as an egress," he said. Roy said he intends to make repairs as soon as possible, starting with two apartments on the ground floor.

On April 29, a nine-unit building at 16 Jefferson St., owned by Northeast Property Group LLC, was posted for noncompliance with the life safety code.

"We didn't think it was safe to be in there," Overton said, adding that the building owners are working to bring the building up to code. Seven of the nine units were occupied.

The owner of a four-unit apartment building at 102 Northern Ave. opted to close the building last September rather than make the corrections required by the city's code officers.

In contrast, Overton pointed to renovations at 43 Court St. as a successful case in point.

Technically, the building is a rooming house, which has stricter codes. Occupants had to leave the 17-unit building after it was posted for code deficiencies on Aug. 5, 2011.

It was reoccupied as a 14-unit building in February 2012.

"I could not have hoped for a better outcome as far as people cooperating with us," he said. "It's actually gone very well."

Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

badams@centralmaine.com

 

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