A plan to beef up the city’s oversight of fire safety in Portland apartment buildings will be presented to the public Tuesday, even as some landlords are calling for more aggressive action and some tenants are pushing for a stronger voice at City Hall.

A task force formed in the aftermath of a Nov. 1 apartment building fire that killed six young adults is recommending the formation of a new five-person fire safety inspection division to increase the number and improve the quality of housing inspections. It is also calling for increased transparency of inspection records and accountability for landlords and tenants.

The group was given a limited amount of time to develop its recommendations by Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, who wants to include any requests for additional resources and staffing in her upcoming budget. The compressed time frame is a source of frustration for staff, landlords and a fledgling tenants’ coalition.

“This is not an ideal process,” Julie Sullivan, the city’s public health director and the top administrator on the task force, admitted during the group’s meeting Thursday.

Some task force members also wanted a larger number of new safety inspectors, while administrators said unrelated financial pressures on the city budget limited what the city can do.

The fledgling Portland Tenant Coalition, which formed in response to the absence of a renter on the city’s task force, is preparing its own set of demands for city officials that may include representation on the task force. A full list of those demands was not available Friday, according to organizer Tom MacMillan.


The task force, which is composed of city officials, landlords and an attorney who represents low-income people in the area, was formed after an early morning fire on Nov. 1 killed six young people living in a duplex on Noyes Street. Five people died of smoke inhalation. A sixth person suffered severe burns and died later at a Boston hospital.

City inspectors had responded to 16 complaints about the building over the previous decade, including complaints about trash, improperly stored combustible material and a possibly illegal unit on the third floor. But inspectors only investigated the complaints and did not conduct a full inspection of the building, officials have said. The city has not released a determination about the third-floor unit.

State and local fire investigators have determined that the fire was started accidentally on the front porch by a cigarette butt that was not properly disposed of. Fire officials said there were no working smoke detectors in the building. They also said the building was apparently being used as a rooming house. Rooming houses are supposed to have extra fire safety measures, including fire alarms with strobes and additional exits.

Although the fire was deemed accidental, the district attorney is reviewing the case to see if criminal charges are warranted, based on the building use, fire officials have said. The legal use of the building is as a two-family home.

The tragedy highlighted the need for city officials to bolster and better coordinate the separate inspection programs run by code enforcement officers and firefighters, especially in a city where more than half of the residents are renters and 51 percent of the mostly stick-built housing stock was constructed before 1940.

However, budgetary concerns prevented the task force from recommending an inspection program robust enough to inspect all of the city’s 17,000 to 20,000 rental units on a proactive and regular basis, regardless of complaints.

Sullivan told the task force at its meeting Thursday that the recommended staffing levels were “the minimum we could take to the City Council with a straight face.”

The task force is recommending the creation of a housing safety office, whose top official would report directly to the city manager. It also wants the city to begin enforcing a 25-year-old ordinance that requires landlords to register their rental units and pay a fee, though the amount of that fee is still being considered.

Three additional housing safety inspectors would be hired and cross-trained in both building and housing safety codes under the proposal, while an administrative assistant would manage a new database that helps officials prioritize their inspections based on risk.

The group is also recommending putting inspections and complaint histories of properties online so they can be viewed by tenants, and stepping up enforcement actions against negligent landlords by ticketing and fining them.

The public hearing will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Room 24 in the basement of City Hall. The recommendations will then be presented to city councilors on Feb. 10.


Landlord representatives on the task force, however, are pushing the city to do more. They want the city to pass an ordinance that would require both landlords and tenants to sign a form attesting they have reviewed basic fire safety precautions, such as keeping exits clear and not removing smoke detectors from the walls.

They also want the city to conduct proactive inspections, rather than focusing only on properties with a higher risk and only responding to complaints. Regular inspections and enforcement of the codes would force landlords to clean up their acts, they argue.

“If we can’t do it in three years, there’s a problem here – there’s not enough staff,” landlord Crandall Toothaker said. “Either you want to be a landlord in the field and play, or you don’t. If you don’t want to play by the rules, then you don’t play.”

He added: “There shouldn’t be room for bad landlords in the city.”

The group, however, continues to struggle with ways to handle tenants. Landlords want tenants to be held accountable if they remove smoke detectors, for example, but city attorneys cautioned that it would be difficult to prove in court.

Also, Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal, a nonprofit that provides services to low-income and elderly people, urged the group to find a way to enforce life safety codes without evicting tenants and making them homeless.

That issue was also at the forefront of the minds of the Portland Tenant Coalition, which also met Thursday.

One of the demands it plans to present to the task force Tuesday is that no enforcement action on behalf of the city should make people homeless. And if a building is deemed unsafe, the landlord should be responsible for housing the displaced tenants.

Other potential demands include appointing the same number of renters to the task force as landlords and creating a landlord-tenant relations department.