POLL QUESTION

Apartment inspection law improves safety but costs landlords, slows markets

Posted May 06, 2012, at 5:36 p.m.

Poll Question

ROCKLAND, Maine — More than a quarter of Maine’s housing stock consists of apartments and many are older units, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

In an effort to make sure the older rental units meet building requirements for safety in their community, Rockland enacted an ordinance in 2008 that requires that apartment buildings be inspected when they are in the process of being sold.

The staff in Bangor city government is looking to Rockland as a possible model for an ordinance to inspect apartments.

The Rockland inspection law has resulted in improvements to many units but has also been blamed for imposing significant costs to landlords and slowing the sales markets for apartment buildings to a near standstill.

The Rockland law requires that a residential building with three or more units must be inspected when they are set to be sold. The fire department also inspects if an apartment is going to be leased by a general assistance client, or if there is a complaint filed with the city about the conditions of the rental unit.

Inspections also are done if the department responds to an emergency call and sees problems.

“We aren’t looking to find deficiencies but if we go and find unsafe conditions, we’re duty bound to bring it into compliance,” Jordan said.

The fire chief said every national safety regulation on the books was developed after a tragedy. He said last year 3,000 people across the United States died in residential fires.

“That’s a 9-11 disaster every year,” he noted, adding that the United States has the worst record for number of fire deaths of any industrialized nation in the world.

Bangor Code Enforcement Office division director Jeremy Martin said the staff in city government is considering an apartment inspection program similar to Rockland.

Martin said Bangor, a service center for the region, has had a continuing problem with apartments. He said the city has a large number of apartments that are federally subsidized for low-income households.

He said the staff will likely come up with a recommended plan of inspections and then present it to the city council for its consideration.

Tim Fuller of the state fire marshal’s office said there are no statewide inspection programs but that by state law, landlords are required to be in compliance with the building codes. He said apartment owners must also follow local ordinances if they are in place.

Jordan said most of the problems found are not major deficiencies.

“It’s small stuff but I know to the apartment owner it may not be small, particularly in this economy,” Jordan said.

There are more the 600 apartments in Rockland in about 150 apartment buildings. This does not include ones in duplexes or single-family homes that are rented and which are not covered under the inspection law.

Assistant Fire Chief Adam Miceli said rarely does he find an apartment building that meets all the codes.

Jordan said that is because many of the apartment buildings were large single-family homes that were converted to multiple apartments.

The most common significant problem found is inadequate stairways. He said in older homes that have two sets of stairs, the rear stairway is often too narrow and too steep to meet safety regulations when they become the primary exit for apartments.

The stairwells need to be 36 inches wide if they are the primary egress for residents.

And one of the other common deficiencies is the lack of adequate-sized windows. Any room where people sleep must have two ways to exit. One of those can be a window but they need to be a minimum of 5.7 square feet, he said.

The chief acknowledged that landlords have expressed frustration with the requirement that inspections be done before sales can occur.

Rockland Assessor Dennis Reed said the requirement, as well as the down economy, have combined to bring apartment building sales to a slow pace.

Tim Payson owns seven buildings in the Rockland area with a total of 40 units.

Payson said a combination of factors have led to a financial strain. He said when he purchased the buildings he paid what was then fair market value but since then the market has declined, fuel costs have skyrocketed, and insurance and taxes have increased.

Payson said the city’s apartment inspection law, however, has added to the difficulties.

“In theory, it’s an effective way to make sure properties are safe. Unfortunately it completely freezes things up,” Payson said.

He said most landlords have to spend $30,000 to $75,000 to meet the work required from the inspections. He said stairwell work is among the most expensive.

The inspection requirements have reduced the equities of buildings by 30 percent, he said. The decline in equity means landlords can’t borrow money from banks to do the work.

Chief Jordan maintained that the inspections done by the department and the code office are also an economic development tool. He said once the work is done on the buildings they become more valuable and have a positive effect on the surrounding neighborhood.

If the problems are not egregious, the department will give landlords up to 12 months to correct issues. He said the landlords must present a plan of correction much sooner.

The department encourages the installation of sprinklers in apartment buildings, but they are not required. He said, however, the installation of sprinklers can offset the need to do other major work.

However, if there are only a couple of doors or windows that need to be replaced, owners generally will decide to do that work rather than install sprinklers.

The chief said these inspections are why there are so fewer fires compared to 20 or 30 years ago.

“Our goal is to put ourselves out of business,” the chief said.

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