June 23, 2018
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Bangor council to vote on problem-property ordinance; landlords want information about potential tenants

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff

BANGOR, Maine — In the past two years, residents near Bangor Efficiency Apartments have watched police roll up to 513 Hammond St. more than 100 times. The calls ranged from burglaries and assaults to noise problems and warrant arrests, according to police department records.

“You will undoubtedly ask me if I consider this excessive and the answer is ‘Yes,’” Bangor Interim Police Chief Peter Arno said Thursday.

Residents have said they’re fed up, and Bangor officials hope a new ordinance will make it more difficult for rowdy tenants and absentee landlords scattered across the city.

Bangor Efficiency Apartments rents units starting at $140 per week, which covers all utilities, including cable, according to its website.

Police also responded to 22 complaints in 2012 at the site of a deadly stabbing in late December at 80 Elm St., according to police, a fact that vexes and worries residents in that neighborhood.

Frustrated neighbors began to turn out to revitalization meetings this past summer to air frustrations about the behavior of some tenants in apartments across the city, including Bangor Efficiency. Others complained about problems with properties along the Main Street corridor, which stretches from Buck Street to Union Street and includes First, Second and Third streets.

Next week, Bangor city councilors will vote on an ordinance that officials hope will resolve residents’ concerns and make being a troublesome tenant or absentee landlord more difficult. Landlords have asked that the city help provide easily accessible public information, such as eviction and grand jury indictment records, about potential tenants so they can weed out individuals who might cause trouble.

The disruptive-properties ordinance targets residences with “chronic” problems of loud music, boisterous gatherings, fights, criminal activity or other “disruptive events.”

Under the ordinance, if police respond to such complaints, property owners receive a warning. If there is a second disturbance at the property within 60 days, it would be classified as a disruptive property by the police chief. A property also would be classified as disruptive if three events happen within 120 days, four within 180, or five within 360.

Once a property is identified as disruptive, the owner must agree to a code and fire-safety inspection and to meet with the police chief to create a plan of action to deter future incidents.

As long as the owner makes a “good faith” effort to resolve the issues, he or she would not face a fine. If the owner refuses to meet with the police chief or refuses to take appropriate remediation steps, he or she would face a fine of $500 to $1,000. After 180 days without an incident, the disorderly classification would be lifted, according to the ordinance.

Contacted by phone on Thursday, Bernie LaBree, who owns Bangor Efficiency Apartments and other properties in Bangor, Orono and Old Town, declined to comment on residents’ complaints about Bangor Efficiency or the proposed city ordinance.

Some critics of the ordinance, which would levy fines against landlords who refuse to work with the city to resolve disruptive issues, have expressed concerns that it appears to target landlords, punishing them for the bad behavior of their tenants. Civil libertarians worry about stigmatizing some tenants.

Andrew Farnham, a Hermon resident who owns a pair of apartment houses on Fern Street, initially opposed the ordinance, but said during a Business and Economic Development Committee meeting Tuesday night that he has changed his mind.

“I actually would remove my objections to this ordinance. … Bangor needs to change,” Farnham said, citing the Elm Street stabbing and other recent crimes and nuisances stemming from persistently problematic properties.

Most residents and landlords who spoke at Tuesday’s committee meeting supported the ordinance.

Farnham met last week with City Solicitor Norm Heitmann and City Councilor Pauline Civiello to discuss the ordinance and things the city might do to prevent it from becoming burdensome for responsible Bangor landlords and property owners.

Farnham and other landlords have asked that the city help Bangor landlords identify tenants who could cause trouble at their properties. Farnham asked Heitmann if the city could obtain a list of the past 12 months of grand jury indictments from the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office. The city did so, and is now trying to determine how it might make that information available to landlords.

Along with grand jury records, landlords also have asked whether information on past evictions or criminal records and other public data could be made available so landlords could have easy access to information about potential tenants.

Heitmann said Wednesday that city officials are beginning to discuss what information might be made available and whether the information would be posted on the city website, the Greater Bangor Apartment Owners and Managers Association website, or linked in a different way.

Farnham has said screening tenants might be the best way of preventing problems under the ordinance.

Rachel Healy, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, criticized the idea of posting indictments because it carried the “potential to place unfair and harmful stigma upon innocent people.”

“We are also troubled by policies that make it harder for people to reintegrate and become productive members of society,” Healy said Tuesday. “Publishing these sorts of records can have a serious impact [on] people’s prospects for employment, housing, education and other opportunities, which can make us all less safe.”

David Norsworthy, a Bangor landlord for the past 20 years, said he was concerned that the ordinance would place the burden of monitoring and keeping track of properties on the police department.

He said he believed “the ideas are really good” and will hold absentee landlords accountable. However, Norsworthy said he was concerned that the ordinance would prompt landlords to kick problematic tenants out, and those tenants then would move to a new place down the street.

The ordinance might just “move [bad tenants] around the city — you’re going to chase them from house to house,” Norsworthy said.

Bruce Blackmer, vice president of Greater Bangor Apartment Owners and Managers Association, said the landlord organization isn’t opposed to the ordinance because its members would attempt to resolve problems with chronically disruptive tenants anyway before the city stepped in.

He said removing a chronically disruptive tenant can be a slow, difficult, expensive process. He said an eviction can cost a landlord as much as $2,000 in legal costs, and can run even higher when factoring in property repair costs.

“It’s hard to solve problems with politics,” said Blackmer, a landlord for 40 years. “You need the courts.”

He said having easy access to public records that might tip landlords off about a potentially troublesome tenant could prevent a landlord from losing a lot of money to court and legal fees down the road.

Farnham said the easiest eviction is one that doesn’t happen.

One of Farnham’s original concerns with the ordinance had been that it allows for property owners to be fined based on the disruptive actions of tenants. But Heitmann maintains that isn’t the purpose of the ordinance.

Under the ordinance, fines would be levied against the property owners only if they refuse to meet with city officials to formulate a plan to resolve the issues and make a “good-faith effort” to prevent future disturbances. Those resolutions could range from implementing a noise curfew to attempting to start the eviction process.

At least 10 other Maine communities have implemented some sort of disruptive-property ordinance, according to Heitmann, and they’re commonplace in other states. The ordinances often are meant to hold absentee property owners accountable for problems in their buildings.

Those unresponsive landlords are the real targets of this ordinance, Heitmann said.

“We’ve had tenants who have had difficulty contacting owners, and they call [Code Enforcement] for help, and we can’t find the owners either,” Heitmann said.

As another means of addressing that problem, the city also hopes to start a registry of landlords, so officials know whom to contact if there are problems and don’t lose track of who is in charge of a property, according to Heitmann.

Councilor Ben Sprague said he knows of one landlord who plans to include a clause in his leases stating that if a fine results from the ordinance, the money will come out of the tenant’s pockets.

Heitmann said Tuesday that the ordinance is a “proper exercise of a municipality’s police powers,” which include its duty to “protect the public health, safety and welfare.”

The City Council is expected to vote on the ordinance during a meeting that starts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, in Council Chambers at City Hall.

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