PORTLAND — City officials are working on a plan to lower the threshold for designating problematic residences as disorderly houses, a label that exposes landlords to fines and litigation. 

But the Southern Maine Landlord Association believes the city should engage property owners earlier in the process and focus more on proactive measures before crafting a more punitive ordinance.

The existing ordinance requires a property to generate eight substantiated calls to police, or three successful criminal prosecutions, within a 30-day period to be deemed a “disorderly house.”

But the Police Department’s neighborhood prosecutor, Trish McAllister, said that standard is too steep.

“It’s just a very high threshold to meet,” McAllister said. “I know there are many properties we keep track of that have had, let’s say, seven calls in 30 days.”

Once a property is designated as a disorderly house, McAllister said the city tries to work with the landlord to fix the problems. If the owner does not effectively address the problems, the city can issue fines and take the landlord to court. 

That was the case recently with the landlord of the 17-unit apartment building at 255/259 Oxford St., which McAllister said generated 150 police calls from March through December 2010. 

The city filed a lawsuit in District Court after several unsuccessful attempts to reach the landlord, Ace Holdings.

McAllister said a recent consent judgement will waive more than $27,000 in civil penalties, if the landlord provides on-site security, counseling for General Assistance tenants and a tenant-screening process.

“I am very optimistic we’ll see some changes on that property,” McAllister said.

Only two properties have been labeled as disorderly houses since McAllister started her grant-funded position last fall.

While Oxford Street would seem to be a case where the existing ordinance has worked, McAllister said there are five to 10 other “hot spots” – properties that have received warning letters for generating four or more police calls within 30 days.

“And that’s a pattern, six or seven calls,” McAllister said. “There’s nothing we can really do about that.”

Some residents on Columbia Road, meanwhile, have complained about nuisance properties over the last several years, but those complaints have not reached the threshold of the ordinance.

Origin of an ordinance

According to city documents, the City Council created the disorderly house ordinance in 1998.

It was intended to give the city leverage over landlords, who were current on their taxes and whose properties had no code violations, but whose tenants disrupted the peace.

The focus of early discussions was a property at 49-51 Bolton St., which reportedly generated 19 police calls in August1997.

The original ordinance set the threshold for a disorderly house at 10 or more police visits between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. in a calendar month.

But the council modified the ordinance in August 2000. Among other changes, the council reduced the threshold to eight or more calls and removed the time-of-day limit.

It’s unclear from city documents why the changes were made.

Landlord reaction

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said his group would like the city to work proactively with landlords when dealing with disorderly houses. 

“This is a good thing to be talking about,” Vitalius said. “But let’s find the best way to deal with it. Maybe it’s an ordinance, but maybe it’s something else.”

Vitalius said SMLA is 30-year-old organization with 200 to 350 members, including about 150 Portland landlords. The group has a wide range of members, including landlords with low-income tenants, he said.

Vitalius said the group can often wield its influence.

“We’re not going to have everyone (as members), but we can apply some pretty decent peer pressure if we have enough landlords that are neighbors of the ones who are bad,” he said.

But Vitalius said he would like more information about the extent to which disorderly houses exist before pursuing a stricter ordinance.

“I don’t know that it’s a huge problem,” he said. “Do it with a carrot, not a stick. We should start there and then look an ordinance, if we continue to have problems.”

Recipe for change

McAllister said the process for changing the ordinance is in its infant stages and that any changes must be approved by the Police Department, the Public Safety Committee and then ultimately the City Council.

But she also noted how high Portland’s threshold of eight police calls compares with other communities. Westbrook sets its threshold at four calls within 30 days, while Brunswick’s threshold is two calls in 60 days, she said.

McAllister said she would like to see a tiered approach to enforcement. The threshold would be lower for smaller apartment buildings and then gradually increase for larger buildings.

“It seems unfair … to hold those to the same standard,” she said. “We need a graduated approach to it. But nevertheless, they should be all under eight (calls).”

McAllister said she hopes to have a formal proposal by spring.

“I really want to make some positive changes for people who feel scared, threatened and disturbed just be being in their own home,” she said. “I just think there’s too much of that and we need to hold property owners accountable for what happens on their properties.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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