Landlords in Greater Portland say a judge’s decision to sentence the owner of an apartment building to three months in prison for a building code violation is a wake-up call for those who manage or own rental property.

Justice Thomas Warren sentenced Portland landlord Gregory Nisbet on the misdemeanor charge in Superior Court on Thursday. Warren could have imposed the maximum sentence of six months, but opted for 90 days in jail and the maximum fine of $1,000.

In October, Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter charges stemming from a deadly 2014 fire at the building on Noyes Street that killed six people. The code violation stemmed from having a window on the third floor that was too small to qualify as an emergency escape route.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said putting a landlord in jail has sent “shock waves” throughout the landlord community.

“This is a big deal. It’s shocking,” Vitalius said. “The judge has certainly made a game-changing call. It’s just a completely different approach to code issues.”



Jim Harmon of Portland has been a landlord for 40 years and currently owns 20 apartment buildings with more than 120 rental units.

“I think (the judge’s decision) is a wake-up call for landlords,” said Harmon, who felt the sentence was too harsh. Harmon said 30 days would have been more appropriate.

“It could have happened to any one of us, but it also proves that you have to keep eyes and ears on your properties,” he said.

A few years ago, a tenant removed a smoke detector from his Portland apartment without Harmon’s knowledge. A fire destroyed the apartment and an adjacent hallway, but did not spread beyond the apartment. Harmon said the tenant, who was a smoker, admitted to the city’s fire chief that he had removed the smoke detector. The tenant was not fined.

Tenants had disabled smoke detectors at Nisbet’s property on Noyes Street.

“Tenants can create a lot of problems,” Harmon said. “They’re so invested in their own lives they aren’t paying close enough attention to the safety factors.”


Carleton Winslow of Portland, who has been a landlord since 1971 and now owns 11 buildings with about 20 units, is vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association and a board member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. Like many property managers, Winslow followed Nisbet’s trial closely.

“Speaking for myself only, I think (Nisbet) got off a little light. There was some negligence,” Winslow said. “I’m not terribly surprised that he is going to jail. I think the jail sentence sends a much bigger message than just a fine.”

Winslow believes this is the first time in Maine that a landlord was sentenced to jail for a building code violation.

He said the jail sentence is not a game-changer for the rental industry. Landlords will continue to buy and rent properties, but they will be more cognizant of safety issues.

“The case has definitely changed things. Landlords will be more attentive to safety issues, and absentee landlords are certainly more aware of safety issues,” he said.



Elizabeth Burke owns an apartment house where four tenants live on the first floor at 5 Oakdale St. in Portland near the University of Southern Maine.

“I’m not shocked that (Nisbet) will be going to jail. I think it’s appropriate,” she said.

Burke said landlords have a responsibility to monitor their tenants’ activities, and renters have an obligation to pitch in as well. In exchange for keeping their rent reasonable, Burke said she requires that tenants help with raking leaves and removing snow.

“I think what landlords need to keep in mind is that tenants are not as invested in a property as a landlord might be and you have to stay on top of them,” she said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.