If media reports are accurate, Portland has the oldest housing stock in New England, lax and unresponsive housing code enforcement and a historically low rental vacancy rate (1 percent), creating a high demand for rental housing. That is a recipe for disaster, as we witnessed in the deadly Noyes Street fire.

For too long, Portland has prioritized permit inspections at the expense of conducting mandatory housing inspections and responding to complaints from tenants and neighbors. Relying on voluntary compliance simply allows problem landlords to ignore tenants’ grievances and disregard the housing code with impunity. Portland needs housing code enforcement, not code encouragement.

I was a housing code inspector and landlord-tenant investigator for 31 years in the city of Baltimore and Montgomery County, Maryland, before retiring and moving to Portland in 2009. I conducted thousands of housing inspections and investigations and routinely enforced notices of violation.

Since relocating, I’ve conducted housing inspections as a volunteer on behalf of a local nonprofit organization and testified in court as an expert witness. All of the inspections I have conducted in Portland revealed substandard conditions with serious housing code violations and, in one case, life-threatening conditions eerily similar to those on Noyes Street.

If the City Council is serious about making substantive changes to housing code enforcement procedures in an effort to avert another tragedy, I offer the following:

• Licensing. License all rental units and charge landlords a reasonable annual licensing fee to fund code enforcement activities. Many cities, including Boston; Burlington, Vermont; and Manchester, New Hampshire, use some form of this system.

Fees could be waived for charitable nonprofit housing providers. It would be illegal to rent an unlicensed unit, and failure by a landlord to comply with code violation notices would result in the revocation of the rental license, which would cost the landlord the right to continue to rent the property.

• Housing Review Board. Establish an appeals board comprised of a representative from the Housing Code Office, the Fire Department and the Southern Maine Landlord Association to adjudicate appeals of license revocations. The board could uphold, rescind or amend the revocation; its decision could be appealed to District Court.

• Office of Housing Code Enforcement. Hire four experienced housing code inspectors to conduct all housing and basic fire safety inspections. Set up a well-publicized housing complaint desk to answer questions and log in new complaints. Complaints could be filed in person or by mail, telephone, email or online, and could be filed anonymously.

• Improve inspection techniques. Provide all inspectors with handheld, touch-screen devices, such as iPads and smartphones, to document inspections and photograph and take videos of conditions. All codes, ordinances and property ownership information can be uploaded onto the devices with specific code enforcement software.

This would expedite inspections, increase productivity, create a permanent electronic record and make the information easily transmittable to landlords, tenants and the general public.

• Housing census. A comprehensive housing census is needed to determine the number, location and condition of all rental properties in the city. The city should partner with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service or a similar institution to have students help design a project to observe and document the condition of all rental properties in Portland, including nonprofits and public housing.

The census teams should enlist the help of the city’s 21 neighborhood associations, which know what properties are rentals, especially ones that have been neglected or are possibly unsafe.

• Landlord assistance. After decades of neglect and deferred maintenance, the cost to bring some rental properties into compliance with the housing code will be substantial. Therefore, the city should either apply for federal block grant funding to provide low-interest, long-term loans to those landlords for the sole purpose of bringing properties up to code, or partner with local financial institutions to facilitate the same.

• Landlord-Tenant Task Force. Create a working group with broad representation to review current housing code and landlord-tenant laws and make recommendations for changes and improvements.

When the City Council considers the Fire Safety Task Force recommendations, public safety, not politics, should be their top priority. They should seize this opportunity to create an effective and sustainable system of inspection and enforcement that protects the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants, strengthens neighborhoods and potentially saves lives.

— Special to the Press Herald

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