Neighborhood leaders and city officials in Portland say they are concerned about apartment buildings being improperly used as rooming houses, a practice highlighted last week when investigators issued a report on the Nov. 1 apartment building fire that killed six young adults.

The owner of 20-24 Noyes St. is accused of offering individual rooms for rent at that building, and at another nearby on Dartmouth Street, without making required life safety upgrades to protect tenants in a fire.

And while there is no reliable count, many believe that a growing number of single- and two-family homes are being effectively used as rooming houses because of a lack of available housing and high rents in the city.

City officials are concerned that landlords are not making the required upgrades to keep tenants safe in a rooming house situation, which fire officials say presents a greater potential for loss of life in a fire. Neighborhood leaders, meanwhile, are concerned that rooming houses are changing the character of their neighborhoods by reducing the number of traditional residential homes.

Unlike apartments shared by families or roommates, rooming houses typically house more residents who are transient and have no relation to one another. The city requires rooming houses to have more sophisticated fire alarms, among other things, because of the potential higher risk.

City officials don’t know how many rooming or lodging houses are actually in the city, because landlords rarely get the required city license. Also, the city does not have a proactive housing inspection program that would uncover illegal rooming houses, and it has not enforced a 25-year-old city ordinance that requires landlords to register their rental units.

INCREASED URGENCY

The Parkside and Western Promenade neighborhood associations have been trying for several years to persuade city officials to strengthen the city code governing rooming houses, but the issue has taken on more urgency in the wake of the fatal Noyes Street fire, Maine’s deadliest in 40 years.

Sworn statements included in civil lawsuits allege the two-family house on Noyes Street was being operated as a rooming house, where rooms were being rented individually by landlord Gregory Nisbet. Similar allegations have been made by tenants and city officials at another Nisbet-owned property at 186-188 Dartmouth St.

Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said at a news conference Wednesday that the cause of the Noyes Street fire was accidental – a discarded cigarette ignited a fire on the front porch. However, the case is being forwarded to the Cumberland County district attorney, who will review the findings to see if criminal charges are warranted based on the use of the building.

“The reason for it to be forwarded to the district attorney is that based on an after-the-fact inspection that was conducted, there are questions about the legal use of that building and how it was being utilized,” LaMoria said.

Keith Guantreau, the city’s acting assistant chief of fire prevention and community outreach, said in an interview that the crux of the issue is whether the building was being used as a two-family home or a rooming house.

Fire investigators concluded that the house did not have functioning smoke detectors, let alone the more sophisticated fire alarm system that would be required of a rooming house.

“We ended up with the perfect storm on Noyes Street,” Guantreau said.

City codes for land use and fire safety have somewhat differing definitions of rooming houses, or lodging houses.

Common among both definitions is that tenants rent their individual room from the landlord, rather than entering into a lease, said the city’s associate corporation counsel, Adam Lee. The fire code, for example, says that a home where at least four people rent rooms individually from a landlord should be regulated as a rooming house.

A landlord who wants to operate a rooming house in a single- or two-family home must file a change-of-use application with the city, said City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin.

But rooming houses could easily exist without the city’s knowledge.

A city code enacted in 1989 requires landlords to register with the city so officials know how a building is being used and whom to contact in case of an emergency. The city has never enforced the registry requirement, however, and due to the age of the ordinance and turnover at City Hall, city officials cannot explain why.

City inspectors can determine if a building is operating as a rooming house when they conduct inspections, Guantreau said. However, the city does not have a regular housing inspection program that would reveal unlicensed boarding houses. Code enforcement officers only inspect houses when a complaint is filed and the fire department only tries to inspect buildings with three or more apartments.

The rooming house distinction is important, according to officials.

Guantreau said rooming houses must have a full fire alarm system, rather than traditional smoke detectors that are required in traditional apartment buildings. Single- and two-family homes are allowed to have only one staircase that is completely open at all levels, he said. However, a second staircase is required if that same home is being used as a rooming house and each staircase must be enclosed so a fire doesn’t spread as quickly, he said.

Guantreau said having only one way out of a building is extremely dangerous, especially when the only exit is on fire.

“You need another way out and that’s where it becomes dangerous,” Guantreau said, noting many old duplexes have third-floor bedrooms. “How do they get out? They have to jump out of windows.”

SEPARATE RENTAL AGREEMENTS

At Noyes Street, fire officials said the fire started on the porch and quickly engulfed the front door. A rear staircase was blocked, forcing the three survivors to jump from second-story windows.

Nathan Long, who escaped the blaze by jumping out of a second-story window after being awakened by his alarm clock, said in a sworn statement contained in a civil lawsuit that Nisbet collected the rent separately from each tenant and that vacancies were filled on a room-by-room basis.

Katherine McGovern, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit that provides assistance to low-income people, described a similar situation at Dartmouth Street, where each tenant had a separate rental agreement with the landlord.

City inspectors have supported that conclusion. Over the course of two inspections, officials observed padlocks on the outside of the doors to individual bedrooms, which Guantreau said shows that tenants were treating their rooms as apartments. McGovern represented the tenants who were evicted after they complained about their housing conditions to the city and Nisbet blamed them for the violations.

Roxann White, who is being evicted from Dartmouth Street, said she put locks on the outside of her bedroom door because she didn’t know many of the people who were renting rooms from Nisbet.

“Even in the eviction at court … he doesn’t even know the legal names of his own tenants, and I’m supposed to trust these people and leave my door unlocked?” White said in a message.

Carol Schiller, president of the University Neighborhood Organization, believes that rooming houses are more common near the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus, which does not have student dormitories. Students wanting to live close to campus are often forced to compromise their safety in order to secure housing, Schiller said.

“There’s a concern because we’re seeing a proliferation of homes being turned into boarding houses,” Schiller said.

Tom MacMillan, an organizer of the fledgling Portland Tenants Coalition, which formed in the wake of the Noyes Street fire, said the city’s low vacancy rate and cost of housing are making rooming houses more common.

MacMillian said he knows of a couple of situations in the Parkside neighborhood – located between Congress Street and Deering Oaks – where apartments are effectively being used as rooming houses and where as many as six people are living in a three-bedroom unit.

“It’s very common,” MacMillan said. “It’s usually with the landlord’s consent. They want to get paid.”

MacMillan said conditions put tenants in a difficult position – they fear that their landlords will retaliate if they complain about their housing situation, especially after the tenants were evicted after complaining about conditions on Dartmouth Street.

“A lot of tenants are scared to speak out,” he said.

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said that at a Jan. 20 meeting of the City Manager’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee, “almost everyone around the table raised their hand” when she asked who was concerned about rooming houses in the city. As a result, city staff, including a planner and an attorney, will talk about what constitutes a rooming house at their next meeting, she said.

“For me, that provided clarity that this is a much broader issue and something we need to elevate in terms of a city project,” she said.