The Portland landlord who evicted all of the tenants in a 24-unit apartment complex said Wednesday that he won’t move to forcibly evict those who don’t leave their apartments by the March 1 deadline.

After meeting with Mayor Ethan Strimling, John Le said he would be flexible with his eviction date since the city has agreed to partner with community groups to relocate the tenants – most of whom are low-income, have mental disabilities, or both – “within a reasonable time frame.”

“We are willing to work with the city,” Le said. “I am flexible and we will not pursue the upcoming court hearing” on evictions March 10.

Strimling said the agreement gives the city and social services agencies “breathing room” to find housing for the tenants.

“Obviously, it’s very complicated,” Strimling said. “The bottom line for me is, the tenants get more time so no one is left homeless in the middle of the winter. I appreciate his flexibility.”

Tenants at 61-69 Grant St. were told Dec. 23 that they would have to leave their apartments by March 1 so the building can be renovated. Le said 20 of the 24 units were occupied at the time.

While several tenants have found other housing, about 14 have no place to go, prompting concerns that they will be forced onto the streets or into the city’s shelter.

Le said drug activity and the poor condition of the buildings forced him to evict the residents so he could renovate, but city officials said at a meeting Wednesday night that although the buildings had some problems, they were not substandard or unsafe.

Portland is experiencing a housing crunch, with high demand and low vacancy rates driving up rents. The market is proving attractive to real estate developers, who are upgrading buildings and constructing market-rate and luxury housing. The influx of high-end apartments is stoking fears that low- and middle-income people will be priced out.

Seven of the Grant Street tenants who are still looking for homes are using housing vouchers from Shalom House, a nonprofit group that helps people with mental illness, said Norman Maze, the agency’s housing director.

Dawn Stiles, Portland’s health and human services director, said the city agreed to take responsibility for relocating the seven tenants who are on vouchers from Shalom House. She said all of those tenants are receiving some type of subsidy, and two may have been long-term clients of the city’s shelter.

Le bought the property last spring through a limited liability company called AEG Holdings. It’s a spinoff of the New Jersey-based Alternative Energy Group, an investment firm that is providing the financing for the renovation.

City records show more than two decades of fire and building code violations at the property, including cockroaches, bed bugs, a lack of fire and carbon monoxide detectors, and faulty fire escapes.

The property at 65 Grant St. failed a building inspection on Aug. 4 because of an unsound fire escape. Officials were called back in September to investigate a complaint about bed bugs, which the owner corrected. However, the property failed fire safety inspections in August and September, according to city records.

Before last summer, the buildings had not been inspected since 2009.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who leads the council’s Housing Committee, said at a news conference that she wants to know how many similar housing situations exist without the city’s knowledge.

“I grew up in this kind of housing, so the last thing I want to do is fight for the right of people to live in substandard, unsafe apartments,” Duson said.

The Housing Committee discussed the evictions during its meeting Wednesday.

City inspectors said the housing is not unsafe. “They’re minor life-safety inspections that are open at this time,” said Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau.

He said the department issued summonses to the landlord over fire escape and egress violations, which were resolved. There is an outstanding summons for fire doors that the department will pursue, now that the tenants will be there longer.

The Housing Committee is looking at a variety of ways to protect renters. Suggestions include:

• Hiring a tenant advocate.

• Banning no-cause evictions or extending the notification requirement for them, which is now 30 days if there is no lease.

• Adopting rent control.

• Setting up a rapid response system for large-scale evictions.

• Requiring landlords to notify the city if they buy buildings with the intent to evict tenants and renovate.

Homeless Voices for Justice joined calls for the city to prohibit no-cause evictions.

Carleton Winslow of Portland, a member of two landlord associations, supports calls for the city to hire a full-time tenant advocate. Such a position could keep landlords and tenants out of court, he said.

“This position could be a very important position and help resolve the very important housing issues we have,” he said.

Winslow said he worked in the city code office in the 1970s and the Grant Street buildings were a problem back then.

“I think the city bears some responsibility there,” he said. “Those buildings have been a problem for a long time.”


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