From the top floor of the old, white house you can look out a pair of small windows and see the burned out foundation across the street, left by a fire that killed six people in 2014.
Over the last four years, as weeds have grown around the wreckage at 20 Noyes St., the blaze has prompted a reckoning with housing safety in Maine’s largest city and, ultimately, landed the building’s owner in jail.
Sarah Rubin still gets goosebumps remembering the morning of the fire, when her tenants called to say that the house across the street was consumed by flames and someone had leaped from a window.
Rubin, a 38-year-old teacher, said the fire drove home her and her husband’s “acute responsibility” to ensure their tenants’ safety. But it wasn’t until years later, she said, that they learned the windows in their top-floor apartment were too small — essentially the same code violation that earned landlord Gregory Nisbet a misdemeanor conviction and 90 days in jail for the deadly fire nearby.
The third floor apartment at 17 Noyes St. is one of scores of Portland dwellings that the city has identified as “illegal” or “nonconforming” through thousands of inspections over the past two years.
Since January 2017, when the city reorganized its housing safety office and began specifically tracking such units, inspectors have found code violations in converted garages, finished basements, top-floor apartments and other spaces, totaling to 81 “illegal” units at 72 properties, according to Michael Russell, director of Portland’s Permitting and Inspection Department.
It was through an inspection this spring that Rubin said she and her husband learned about the code violations in their third-floor apartment. The unit is now sitting empty as the couple work out what it will cost to bring it up to code, she said, and the experience has left them “absolutely shaken.”
“It’s a terrible feeling to know that there’s something wrong with your building and you have to tell somebody that they need to find another place to live,” Rubin said.