BANGOR, Maine — Routine health and safety inspections could be in store for nearly 6,000 local apartment units that are currently only inspected in response to complaints from residents or landlords.
City employees said this week they’ll recommend during the City Council’s Government Operations Committee on Monday that the city create a new program to regularly inspect apartments for health and safety code violations.
The goal is to ensure that renters have access to safe and healthy living spaces, Community and Economic Development Director Tanya Emery said.
Work on the inspection proposal predates a deadly apartment fire that claimed the lives of six people in Portland in November, according to officials. Emery said the Portland fire confirmed for Bangor officials that “we were on the right path.”
According to Emery, a combined team of firefighters, code enforcement officers and fire inspectors would conduct the inspections, checking for items like working smoke detectors, adequate means of escape in the event of a fire, suitable plumbing and heat, and safe electrical systems.
“We’re not looking to make sure everybody has granite countertops and double vanities in their bathrooms,” she said. “We just want [to see] a working toilet.”
As proposed, the inspections would only apply to apartment buildings with three or more units. That’s a total of 5,844 apartment units citywide, according to city officials.
Emery said the city does not have the resources to inspect the 6,605 single-family homes nor the city’s 785 duplex or two-unit properties.
“We certainly hope to do more, but our plan is to be realistic in what we can do with the resources that we have,” she said.
According to Code Enforcement Officer Jeremy Martin, the plan does not call for the city to hire additional personnel and no fees would be levied to cover the cost of the inspections.
Despite the limited scope of the program, Martin said any inspection program would be safer for residents since it would add to the current system that is “strictly complaint driven.”
In keeping with federal guidelines, the only apartments in Bangor that are regularly inspected are federally subsidized housing units, such as Shelter Plus Care and Section 8, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow.
Due to the limited scale of the program, Conlow and Emery estimated it would take approximately three years to inspect all eligible apartments. The inspection program would continue from there on a rotation.
Fire Inspector Dan Landers said it would be difficult to require inspections of single- and double-unit dwellings because the International Building Code classifies both as single-family homes.
That means they are protected under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, he said, which bars searches that are not judicially sanctioned unless invited by the property owner or the tenant.
An examination of complaints filed with the city since July 28 showed a total of 49 property and code complaints as of March 9 — one related to noise from the city’s Waterfront Concert Series.
Of those, just seven were related to poor housing conditions. Records did not always indicate if the complaints involved apartments or houses.
The proposed inspection program comes after city officials initially proposed a fee-based program to inspect apartments rented with General Assistance funds. General Assistance is a state funded program administered by municipalities.
Under the General Assistance program, residents in need can obtain vouchers from the city to pay their rent, but no inspections of the dwellings are required.
Conlow said the City Council rejected the initial proposal because they were not comfortable singling out General Assistance housing, nor were they comfortable charging a fee for the inspection.
While buildings with three or more units are classified as commercial operations and not afforded the same protections as single-family dwellings, city officials may still have difficulty completing inspections.
According to city officials, unless they get a complaint, inspectors still cannot enter an apartment to conduct an inspection without permission from the property owner or the tenant.
A memorandum released Friday afternoon proposes a May 1 rollout of the inspection program to be preceded by a public relations campaign intended to clarify tenant and landlord responsibilities.
Emery said tenants and landlords can always request an inspection if they suspect a code violation or safety issue.
Asked about the inspection proposal, Francis Leen, president of the Greater Bangor Apartment Owners & Managers Association said they support safer apartments and have arranged for a representative from the state fire marshal’s office to speak at one of their monthly meetings.
Asked if the group would oppose the proposed inspection program, he said “You’ve got to actually speak to each [owner] individually on something like that. They’re all different. But I know [for] us as [the] Greater Bangor Apartment Owners & Managers Association group, if it’s the right thing for the tenant, it’s the right thing for our business.”
The Government Operations Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the council chambers City Hall.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.