Tenants of some older properties in Portland’s densely packed neighborhoods are living in apartment buildings that have code violations dating back years, according to fire department records.

The city has put roughly 300 rental properties on notice that they must develop plans to address outstanding fire code violations, some as old as 2007. Twenty-two of those properties are managed by landlords who are not responding to the city’s notices.

But even after the violation letters go out and action plans are drafted, the city’s record-keeping practices make it difficult to know whether the upgrades were made and follow-up inspections conducted in a timely manner.

Portland officials provided some information to the Maine Sunday Telegram in February, as the newspaper launched an investigation into code violations, housing problems and city inspections. This past week, in the wake of a horrific fire that killed six young people in an apartment house in Portland, the newspaper asked for updated information. The city said it was considering the request but didn’t provide it by Saturday and declined to make anyone from the fire department available for an interview.

Scrutiny of the safety of Portland’s housing units and the city’s fire inspection program has intensified since last weekend’s fast-moving fire on Noyes Street, the deadliest fire in Maine in 40 years.

It’s unclear what caused the fire and whether the property had functioning smoke alarms. Neighbors had complained about the condition of the property at 20 Noyes St. before the Nov. 1 fire.

On Friday, the city released inspection records in response to a Freedom of Access Act request by the Maine Sunday Telegram. Those records showed that 16 complaint-based inspections of 20 Noyes St. were conducted since 2003. The complaints ranged from a possibly illegal unit built on the third floor, to combustible materials on the porch and excessive trash.

The records show that residents made efforts to clean up the property in June, but there is no ruling about whether the third-floor bedroom complied with city codes. The city did not release information about the additional room, citing the ongoing investigation.

Greg Nisbet, the owner of the property, didn’t return calls for comment.

REPORT OUTLINED DEFICIENCIES

The fire at Noyes Street shocked tenants and landlords alike.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the city has been fielding calls from residents concerned over the safety of their own housing. However, she said no one within the fire department, including fire prevention officials, was available to talk to the newspaper about the calls, saying they were still investigating the Noyes Street fire.

Mayor Michael Brennan would not discuss questions about the fire safety of Portland’s apartment buildings and why elected officials haven’t done more to address deficiencies in its fire inspection program outlined in a 2013 report.

“I am not in a position to answer your questions,” he said.

Deficiencies noted in a report by Leslie Adams, an independent consultant who reviewed the fire department in 2013, include a lack of adequate staffing and training in the fire prevention bureau to meet the city’s goal of inspecting nearly 5,000 multi-unit apartment buildings and businesses annually, as well as inadequate record keeping.

The Maine Sunday Telegram has requested fire code violations, letters and documentation of follow-up inspections. Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s corporation counsel, said it would take a month to compile the records by hand and copy them, and cost more than $1,000 to comply with the request.

Last Sunday, Brennan said, “I’m certainly going to talk to (city officials) and see if we need to take more aggressive action and pay more attention to some of the conditions of buildings within the city.”

Although the city will not say if it is increasing fire inspections, the nonprofit group SailMaine sent out an email Tuesday canceling a “Warehouse Party” scheduled for Thursday because the venue at 235 Presumpscot St. was deemed unsafe by city fire inspectors.

“In light of the fatal house fire in Portland on Saturday November 1st, the City of Portland is stepping up its efforts to ensure that all places of assembly, such as the warehouse, meet all fire safety ordinances laid out by the City,” the email said. “Through an inspection earlier today, it became known to SailMaine that the building has outstanding fire code violations and is deemed unsuitable for an event like our Warehouse Party.”

An official with SailMaine declined to comment further.

The city also announced Friday it was creating a task force to review the city’s fire and code inspection policies in the wake of the fire. The group will include representatives of the fire, police, inspections, social services and legal departments, as well as a local landlord association.

OLD HOUSING STOCK

Adams told the Telegram that fire inspections are important in a city like Portland, which has some of the oldest housing stock in New England. More than half of the city’s residents are renters, according to the city.

His report notes that a previous review of the department, conducted in 1983, also noted the importance of focusing on fire prevention.

About 51 percent of the city’s housing units were built before 1940, according to the 2012 American Community Survey.

Over the years, new fire codes have dramatically reduced the number of fires, but older buildings are exempt from complying with some aspects of the new code unless they undergo a major renovation, according to State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas.

All multi-unit apartments are required to have functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire-rated doors, and in most cases two means of egress, according to Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. Apartment buildings with at least four levels or 12 units are also required to have centralized alarm systems and sprinklers, he said.

Meredith Finn has lived in a historic brick apartment building at 22 Carleton St. for about 13 years. She was relieved when a private company stopped by Thursday morning to conduct a regular quarterly inspection of the fire alarms.

The 10-unit building in the city’s West End was built in 1900, according to city records. It’s one of the thousands of housing units that was built before 1940.

Finn, who is in her 40s and works from home, said the tests involve setting off the alarm system, which includes a lot of noise and strobe lights that scare her cat, Manny. But the peace of mind in knowing the system works is well worth any momentary inconvenience, she said.

“I’m completely OK with it,” said Finn. “After that horrible fire last weekend, I think everybody was pretty scared hearing about that – everyone in Portland and particularly people in older houses.”

Finn is lucky, however. She said her landlord, Marc Fishman, is a “great landlord” who works hard to keep his properties safe and well-maintained. “That makes a big difference in terms of how safe you feel,” she said.

Portland’s housing – 51 percent of which was built before 1940 – is much older than that in the rest of the state. Twenty-eight percent of Maine’s housing units were built before 1940, which is comparable to the rest of New England, according to a 2010 report from the Maine State Housing Authority and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Fishman, of Fishman Realty, said many landlords struggle to pay for needed upgrades, which can include features like centralized fire alarm systems and self-closing fire-rated doors that prevent flames from quickly spreading.

He chose to install a centralized fire system at 22 Carleton St. five years ago, rather than install fire doors in the historic building.

“It was a significant investment,” said Fishman, who owns 80 units in Portland and manages many others. “It cost almost $30,000.”

Fishman said he is currently seeking bids to install a similar system in another 12-unit property where he has already invested $20,000 to install fire doors. He lamented the lack of a lending program that would provide loans to landlords. Without a loan program, landlords must use cash, which is often tied up in maintenance and operating costs.

“Heating costs are high. Maintenance is high. Insurance is high. It’s expensive to maintain properties,” Fishman said. “It would be nice if a local bank partnered with (the) city to lend funds to landlords who want to upgrade, but don’t have the means to do it.”

FALLING BEHIND IN INSPECTIONS

Nearly 5,000 businesses and multi-story apartment buildings are supposed to be inspected annually, per city policy, according to the 2013 fire department review. However, in 2013, the city inspected only about 60 percent of those properties.

The Maine Sunday Telegram conducted a series of interviews with fire Capt. Chris Pirone earlier this year. At the time, Pirone was one of two people in the Portland Fire Department charged with enforcing the fire code.

Pirone, who no longer works in the fire prevention bureau, estimated that 10 additional inspectors would be needed to meet the city’s goal of conducting annual inspections.

“There’s no way we have the time and the staff to get to all of them,” said Pirone. “It’s concerning.”

Portland is undergoing a post-recession development boom. In 2013, the city saw a nearly $60 million increase in private investment over 2012, from $32 million to $91 million. The development activity has not slowed down, either.

Developers have complained that it takes too long to get building permits in Portland. In response, the city has reduced wait times by 25 percent by streamlining the review process, according to city officials.

The push to review new permits, though, makes it difficult to focus on landlords of existing buildings who are ignoring outstanding violations.

Pirone said he spent about 80 percent of his time reviewing permit requests.

“I’d love to spend 80 percent of my time with existing buildings and existing problems,” Pirone said. “There’s a lot of pressure (to clear new permits) – it helps the community and creates jobs.”

Fire inspections are done initially by in-service firefighters. If landlords do not respond to notices of violations within 32 days, the case is forwarded to the fire prevention bureau, which sends a formal second letter to the landlord via certified mail that sets the stage for legal action.

The city works with landlords to develop a timetable for fixing the code issues, but it’s unclear how and whether the city follows up to ensure those upgrades are made.

Earlier this year, the newspaper reviewed fire inspection reports for nearly a dozen properties. Some of the fire code violations dated back to 2007, and included violations such as a lack of fire-rated doors, inadequate water supply for sprinklers, no required alarm systems and inadequate means of egress.

The newspaper is not disclosing the properties or the inspection reports because it was unable to confirm that the reports were still accurate, or whether landlords have made any upgrades.

Pirone said out-of-state landlords used to be a problem, but now local landlords who live outside of Portland are the most difficult to gain compliance. Some landlords refuse to receive certified violation letters, while others are practically anonymous because they place their properties in holding companies, he said.

“A lot of these owners are hard to track down,” Pirone said.

Even well-intentioned landlords can be confused by the complexity of fire code requirements, according to Vitalius.

Since last weekend’s fatal fire, landlords throughout southern Maine have been seeking information about required fire safety measures, Vitalius said.

The Southern Maine Landlord Association is planning to hold panel discussions in the coming months with landlords and fire prevention officials.

“Landlords are all thinking about this,” he said.

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