A 23-year-old renter who knew two tenants killed in the Nov. 1 fire on Noyes Street in Portland is organizing a tenant union to give renters more of a voice in the safety of their housing at a time when the rental market is putting landlords squarely in the driver’s seat.

“It was a personal situation for me,” said Grace Damon, a Bayside resident who is organizing the group. “I guess my way of grieving was to do something about it.”

Helping Damon for their own reasons are Catherine Wilson, 51, and Evan Feeley, 26.

Wilson’s son Justin Irish, 32, was a tenant at 20 Noyes St., but he wasn’t home at the time of the fire, which killed six young adults. She hopes the group will be able to work with the city and landlords to create safer housing, while educating tenants about their responsibilities to ensure that apartments have basic safety features, such as functioning smoke detectors.

Feeley, of Old Orchard Beach, believes that tenants’ rights will eventually become part of what he sees as a civil rights movement taking place across the country in response to police shootings of unarmed black men. Also, Portland could set a precedent for other communities, he said.

“What happens in Portland will probably affect what happens outside of Portland,” Feeley said. “I feel like it’s easy for a tenant to get bullied. It’s harder for them to demand their rights.”

The fledgling group will hold its first meeting Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. at A Space for Grace, 1 Marginal Way. Katherine McGovern of Pine Tree Legal Services, a statewide nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income people, is expected to attend.

The tenant union’s primary goal is to advise the city’s inspections task force, which does not include any renters. The long-term goal is to meet regularly to empower tenants to stand up for their rights.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said property owners always welcome input from tenants.

“Most landlords are interested in providing good housing to good tenants,” said Vitalius, who estimated that the vacancy rate is nearly zero in Portland. “There’s a misconception that landlords and tenants are adversarial towards each other.”

The city’s task force was formed after it was revealed that city inspectors had received 16 complaints over an 11-year period about the condition of 20-24 Noyes St. before the fatal fire. Complaints included the improper storage of combustible materials and a possibly illegal unit on the third floor.

According to city records, inspectors called landlord Gregory Nisbet to discuss the third-floor unit, but apparently he didn’t call back. The city hasn’t said whether it investigated further, citing the ongoing investigation into the fire.

Sworn statements included in a civil lawsuit suggest that Nisbet was not responsive to tenant concerns and that the building didn’t have working smoke detectors. Nisbet’s attorney has declined to comment on the allegations.

The task force recently completed an internal review of its inspections programs and has recommended creating a new housing division to handle complaints, while creating a centralized database that would allow city officials and tenants to monitor the safety records of apartment complexes online.

Damon said she is concerned that the task force includes two people representing landlords, but no renters, as the task force finalizes recommendations in January to present to the City Council in February.

Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director, said the city tapped Pine Tree Legal to represent renters because of its breadth of experience in dealing with a diverse range of housing issues. “They’re pretty fierce in their advocacy for tenants,” she said.

Portland has some of the oldest housing in New England, with 51 percent of the units built before 1940, according to the American Community Survey. Of Portland’s 30,000 housing units, 17,000 are rentals.

Wilson said her son is looking for a new apartment, but he is having trouble finding one. She is concerned that there is no online database for tenants to research a property’s safety record.

“It’s astounding we don’t have anything like this in play,” Wilson said. “There needs to be something done so landlords are held responsible for having smoke detectors that work and for all-around fire safety.”

Damon said she is currently having some issues with her landlord, but she declined to provide details. Also, two years ago she lived at 186-188 Dartmouth St., which is owned by Nisbet.

“I know what it feels like to feel helpless when your landlord isn’t responding to your problems,” she said about other renting experiences. “People need to know that it’s not just them. They’re not alone.”

The city inspected the Dartmouth Street building on Dec. 17, after tenants complained. Inspectors found 10 violations, including improper storage of combustible materials, illegal locks on an exit door, a lack of fire protection on an old boiler and electrical issues. Since the house appeared to have been functioning as a boarding home, Nisbet will be required to install an alarm system.

A similar tenants union surfaced more than a decade ago, when vacancy rates were low and finding housing was difficult.

Ed Democracy of South Portland was a founding member of the Portland Tenants Union, which formed in 2001 in response to a lack of safe, affordable housing in the city. The group helped shine a spotlight on housing issues when vacancy rates dipped to 1 percent or below.

The group successfully lobbied the Legislature to mandate stronger reporting requirements for lead paint by landlords, Democracy said. However, the group was plagued by infighting about whether the group should charge tenants a fee to join, he said.

Democracy, 51, suggested that the founders of the new group take the time needed to create a sustainable organization, and that they be attentive to the group dynamic. The group also should have diverse representation, with different types of tenants living in different parts of the city, he said. Ideally, the group would have at least one representative from each of the five City Council districts, so they can develop a relationship with their councilors.

“I’m pulling for them,” Democracy said. “Hopefully they can pull together so their loss can be for something good.”

Feeley, who works in Portland, said he understands that it will be difficult to organize a core group of renters for a lasting tenant union, because many are struggling to make ends meet. But he thinks it’s worth a shot.

“It’s organizing that’s going to give (tenants) a solid voice,” he said. “You have to stand up for your rights if you want them.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.