Portland city officials need not look far for examples of proactive rental housing inspection programs.

Boston, Burlington, Vermont, and Manchester, New Hampshire, inspect rental units on a regular basis. They also require landlords to register their rentals with the city and pay a per-unit fee that helps fund the program.

Inspection programs in other Maine cities and towns vary, although it is clear Portland is not the only community struggling with how to pay for inspections and enforcement.

South Portland firefighters inspect all businesses and apartment buildings with three units or more on an annual basis, while Lewiston inspects those properties every four to five years. Gorham inspects all rentals every few years.

Inspectors in Biddeford, Bangor and Brunswick, meanwhile, inspect apartments only when there is a complaint. Bangor, however, is planning on activating company-level firefighters for some proactive apartment inspections as a result of the Portland fire on Noyes Street that killed six.

“It’s a high priority for me,” said Tom Higgins, Bangor’s new fire chief. “It catches things that might not otherwise be seen.”


Brunswick Fire Chief Kenneth Brillant, president of the Maine Fire Chiefs’ Association, said the statewide organization does not keep a database of inspection programs. However, Brillant recalled how Brunswick’s fire inspection program came under scrutiny in 2011 after three fires occurred at apartment buildings, some of which had known fire safety violations. Officials considered restoring a proactive inspection program, similar to one the town had in the early 1990s before it was lost to budget cuts, he said.

“There was a lot of talk about wanting to do something,” Brillant said. “But when it came down to the dollars and cents, it didn’t work out.”

Cities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont offer a framework – and a funding mechanism – for proactive inspection programs.

 Boston switched last year from a complaint-based housing inspection program to one in which most apartment buildings are inspected every five years.

Landlords must pay a registration fee of $25 per unit, or a $15-per-unit renewal fee. Landlords must also pay fees for inspections that range from $50 to $75 per building.

The city has a point system for violations. The more points levied against a property owner, the higher the fines for violations and the more frequent the property inspections.


The city recently began working with colleges in the area to identify apartment complexes that are popular with students, who are less likely to complain about living conditions because they often have more people living in their apartments than they should.

 Burlington has a proactive inspection program for all of its 10,000 rental units, including two-unit buildings.

Rental units are typically inspected every three years and most units that pass inspections get a certificate of compliance. Inspections can be done more or less often depending on whether a building has a history of problems or a strong compliance history.

Landlords must pay a registration fee of $100 per unit, unless it’s a duplex; then the fee is $75 a unit. If violations are found, the owner is charged a $60 fee for the first reinspection, a $100 fee for the second and a $200 fee for the third.

Inspection records for all of Burlington’s rental properties are accessible online. A prospective renter can see a permit history and when a certificate of compliance expires, as well as complaints and frequency of inspections.

The city’s website also offers a four-page safety checklist for landlords and an “Off Campus Living Survival Guide” that outlines a tenant’s rights and responsibilities, and contact information for the Vermont Tenants group.


 Manchester also has a proactive inspection program, dating back to 1986, for the city’s 24,000 units.

Properties are inspected every three years and receive a certificate of compliance if no violations are found. The city’s registration fee is $25 per unit and its inspection fee is $35 per unit.

Landlords are given 45 to 60 days to fix violations before a property is reinspected, said Code Enforcement Director David Albin. If it fails again, the owner is fined for each violation, ranging from $50 for the first offense, to $100 for a second and $200 for those thereafter.

Albin said complaint-based systems like Portland’s don’t typically ensure that all housing is safe because many tenants may not know what problems to look out for or how to report problems.

“You’re relying on human nature. Some people don’t complain,” Albin said. “The proactive system at least gives the city inspectors a chance to get into these buildings every three years and get the problems taken care of.”

A few years ago, the department had five housing inspectors and came close to meeting its goal of inspecting each rental unit every three years, he said. Recent budget cuts reduced the force to four inspectors, and now they are about nine months from their target.

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