Portland city councilors voted Monday night to create a housing safety office that will be responsible for inspecting thousands of rental housing units in the city.

Created in response to a fire in November on Noyes Street that killed six young people, the office, which will employ a top manager, three street-level inspectors and an administrative assistant, will be charged with enforcing housing codes and addressing unsafe living conditions for Portland’s renters.

During brief public comments, two people spoke in opposition to the plan, saying it would duplicate services that the city should already provide. Several people spoke in favor.

“We support the ordinance as it’s proposed,” said Carleton Winslow, a landlord with the Southern Maine Landlord’s Association. “As I’ve said before, the devil is in the details.”

The city’s staff estimates the new program will cost $335,000, $165,000 less than the original estimate of $500,000.

In a 9-0 vote, the council enacted new ordinance language to give teeth to a longstanding but nary-enforced rental unit registration program. With the new ordinance language, every landlord in the city will be required to register with the city, pay a $35 per-unit fee, or face a fine of $100 per day. Providing false information would result in a $1,000 fine.

Prior to passage of the ordinance, city firefighters had only been conducting proactive inspections of businesses and apartment buildings containing three or more units. However, nearly half of the city’s rental units are two-family homes like the one at 20-24 Noyes St., which officials say caught fire after smoking material was improperly disposed of on the front porch. Other safety problems were also found in the building following the fire.

SEEN AS A STEP FORWARD

Although the ordinance does not require the department to inspect every unit annually, the ordinance is viewed as a step forward by Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the council’s public safety committee.

The registration information will be used to build an electronic database of rental units throughout Portland, enabling the new department’s staff to search, categorize and prioritize units for inspection that are considered at the highest risk.

After the fire on Noyes Street, city officials convened a housing safety task force, which recommended the city create an office specifically to oversee rental units. The housing safety office was included in the city’s $225 million budget, but will be funded by the $35-per-unit fee.

In addition to three new inspectors, who will be cross-trained in fire-safety and building codes, the new housing safety office will be staffed by an administrative assistant who will maintain a registry of landlords and an online database of inspections and complaints on rental properties.

The office will be overseen by a top-level official, who will coordinate inspections across various departments and report directly to the city manager.

Details of how the fee will be administered, when the fee will be due and whether there will be exemptions or credits for landlords deemed to be exemplary are issues the city staff will take up before September.

 


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