A City Council subcommittee voted unanimously Tuesday for a series of ordinance changes designed to improve the safety of Portland’s rental units, including creation of a housing safety office.

The vote by the Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee also supports establishing an online database for housing inspections and requiring landlords to register with the city. Roughly half of the Portland’s residents live in rental units.

Several specifics need to be worked out, including the development of a plan that would ensure that all rental units will be inspected within a specific time frame. City staff was directed to present the committee with a work plan this fall.

“Continuous improvement I think is going to be the mantra for this operation,” said Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the committee.

The proposal, which was recommended by a special task force formed in the wake of the fatal Noyes Street fire that killed six young people on Nov. 1, now heads to the full council. If approved, it would take effect Jan. 1.

The housing safety office would report to the city manager and include three new inspectors cross-trained in fire and building codes. It also would include an administrative assistant to manage an online database of inspection records and a top level official to coordinate inspections across departments.


The office would prioritize buildings that pose the highest risk. A risk score would be assigned to each property based on the number of previous violations, complaints and type of construction, among other factors. That information would be available to the public online.

The proposal includes an ordinance change that would allow firefighters to inspect single-family and two-family rental units in addition to the buildings with three units or more they currently have authority to inspect.

Currently, firefighters only conduct proactive inspections of businesses and apartment buildings with three or more units. When fire officials inspect properties, they don’t investigate other building code issues, such as the stability of outdoor decks, unless the issue involves an emergency escape route.

The city’s code office, meanwhile, only inspects apartments when a complaint is made. Even then, only one inspector handles all of the complaints that come into the code office, and only the specific complaint is investigated.

The inspection program also would cover condominiums rented on an occasional basis, as well as homes rented through online services such as Airbnb that allow people to arrange short-term stays.

It would require landlords with one or more rental units to register with the city by Jan. 1 to disclose ownership interest, address, telephone number, email address and property manager. A $35 fee would be assessed for each rental unit.

The committee directed city staff to work with a yet-to-be-established stakeholder group to develop a list of incentives for property owners who have demonstrated a commitment to safety, for example, by having a smoke-free policy or a building fully equipped with fire-suppression sprinklers. Those incentives would be subject to council approval in September.

Landlords who fail to register with the city would be fined $100 a day and those who provide false information would be fined $1,000. Those facing fines would be able to appeal before the city manager and ultimately a judge.

The program was originally estimated to cost nearly $500,000, but City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said staff has revised that estimate down to $335,000. It would be funded by registration fees.

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