November 08, 2019
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As Bangor looks to register and inspect all rentals, here’s what other Maine cities do

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
An apartment building at 27 Webster Ave. North in Bangor is pictured Sept. 26. A former tenant pointed out that the windows that pushed open from the bottom extended up only a small way — not enough for someone to escape in case of a fire or to meet city code requirements.

As Bangor examines whether and how to create a database of its rental properties, city officials have turned an eye to other Maine cities with rental registries for lessons on how to proceed. They show a range of options for Bangor to consider, from what to charge landlords to register their properties to how to roll out the program.

In March, a Bangor Housing Work Group put forward a number of ideas to improve the city’s housing quality and safety. Its No. 1 recommendation was to launch a rental registry: Landlords would be required to have all rented apartments and homes in the city listed on the registry, and the units would need to pass inspections.

Details such as how much Maine’s third largest city would charge landlords to list their properties on the registry, what the registration fees would fund and what criteria the properties would have to meet to pass inspections are still being worked out, and would ultimately require approval by the Bangor City Council, according to Tanya Emery, the city’s director of community and economic development.

City staff have been surveying other Maine communities with rental registries to determine what features have worked well for them, along with what resources Bangor would need to run its own inspection program. Most of the state’s largest cities already have one. Emery estimated the research could be completed by the end of this year.

“We want do that homework ahead of time,” she said. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel either if there is a program that’s working very well.”

In general, a registry changes a city’s approach to its rental market, making quality control more driven by a planned process and less driven by complaints. Multiple studies have found that a substantial number of dangerous code violations go undetected by cities without registration programs. Registries take the burden of complaining about safety issues off tenants, who often fear that speaking up will prompt their landlords to retaliate.

It was because of a tenant that Bangor inspectors recently found a number of safety concerns at an eight-unit rental property at 27 Webster Ave. North. On Sept. 26, Adrian Henderson pushed open the green door on the side of his former apartment building. In the upstairs hallway, plywood blocked a door that appeared to once connect to a fire escape outside.

His old apartment was locked, but, he told a reporter, inside there was another fire hazard: small windows in the bedroom that pushed open from the bottom, extending up only a small way.

“God forbid something happens, nobody’s getting out on the second floor,” Henderson said.

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
Former tenant Adrian Henderson stands next to one of two old exits that were boarded up with plywood on the second story of an apartment building in Bangor on Sept. 26. The following day, city code inspectors instructed the building owner to permanently remove and fill the doorways, using proper framing, insulation, sheathing and siding as needed.

The following day, after hearing about the potentially too-small windows, city code inspectors confirmed seven issues with the exterior and 15 issues with the interior, including that no bedroom windows were big enough for someone to escape if the building were on fire, according to the city’s summary of the code violations sent to the property owner, B & L Properties.

The city’s letter forbid the owner from renting out two empty apartments in the building until all repairs were made and new windows were installed. It said inspectors planned to return in 60 days.

A manager of the property, meanwhile, said Henderson had been behind on rent and was talking to the Bangor Daily News out of retaliation for being given an eviction notice. She hung up the phone before a reporter could ask for her name.

With a rental registry, property owners would expect inspections on a more regular basis and perhaps would not get as many surprise calls from code enforcement.

“I just ultimately want to have a spreadsheet with every rental and whoever is inspecting it,” said Jeff Wallace, director of Bangor’s code enforcement division. “Ultimately what it does is it ensures safe housing stock.”

Elements of rental registries have provoked debate elsewhere, particularly when it comes to charging fees or requiring inspections that can lead to expensive repairs. One property manager called Sanford’s rules mandating inspections of rental property there “governmental overreach,” but an effort two years ago to overturn the rules failed.

Sanford aims to work with landlords to make repairs within a reasonable amount of time, said Ian Houseal, the city’s director of community development who oversaw the launch of the rental registry in 2017.

“‘We just need to make you aware that this is a safety impact that affects your liability,’” he said.

The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center supported a bill earlier this year to prohibit rental registries in Maine. “[P]roperty owners should not be subjected to unreasonable search in order to rent their property to tenants. The free market is well-equipped to prevent individuals and families from living in unsanitary and dangerous conditions,” Adam Crepeau, a policy analyst at the center, said, according to his written testimony. The bill failed.

At least eight Maine municipalities have started various types of registration programs, differing in the amount they charge landlords and the type of buildings they’ve prioritized for inspections. As Bangor considers a shift to a rental registry, cities like Sanford, Orono, Rockland, Portland and Lewiston offer perspective.

Fees

For landlords to register their properties in Portland, which began inspections in 2016, they have to pay $35 per unit per year, with up to a $20-per-unit discount if the property has certain safety features. The fee is important because it covered the cost of extra city staff needed to do inspections, said Art Howe, the former Portland housing safety administrator who oversaw the launch of that city’s registry.

For comparison, Orono charges $25 per unit each year.

But Howe cautioned municipalities against using the fee as a way to make money for other things. “It shouldn’t be used as a money maker for the city coffers,” he said.

Houseal, with Sanford, agreed. “I think it’s most important to consider the fair, equitable cost and service in all fees and all discussions that municipalities take on. That would be the most important thing,” he said. But “I don’t know how you can possibly do it without [a fee].”

Sanford charges annual per-property fees, such as $100 for a single-family home and $500 for a home with eight or more units. Like Portland, it offers discounts. If a property is licensed on time and passes an inspection, the owner will get 50 percent off the following year.

There are also long-term financial upsides to consider, Houseal said. Several changes, including the hiring of additional code inspectors, contributed to a better rating for the city that insurance companies use to help set home insurance rates. And increased inspections revealed that about 80 two-unit buildings were actually single-family homes, which are worth more. An increase in their property value increased what the city could ultimately collect in property taxes.

Improving the condition of buildings in general can also increase their value and the value of surrounding properties, Houseal said.

Lewiston plans to do things differently. A registry there is expected to go live next year that will require landlords to register their rental properties and contact information with the city, making it easier to see who owns what and to reach them in the event of an emergency.

But Lewiston decided against an annual $36-per-unit registration fee that would have supported more code enforcement. A committee said it wanted to avoid a financial burden for landlords. Rather, the cost of additional code enforcement “should be supported through the overall property tax,” the group said in its final report.

Rockland, meanwhile, only requires inspections when a building with three or more units is being sold. That has worked for the coastal city as it’s become a more desirable place to live, said John Root, who directs Rockland’s code enforcement department.

Ideally, it would take two inspectors and one administrative person to run a rental registration program in Bangor, Wallace, the code director, said. While it’s possible that city dollars or federal Community Development Block Grant program funds could pay for positions in the short term, he said he’d like to see registration fees create a self-supporting program in the long term.

Where to start

When Portland began inspections in 2016, it first created a proprietary database to help it figure out which areas of the city to prioritize.

There are a range of factors that may increase a property’s fire risk, such as age, going a long time without an inspection, not having a sprinkler system, not having a property owner living on site, being behind on property taxes and having a frequent police presence, said Howe, formerly with Portland.

The database didn’t just look at individual homes but showed the neighborhoods with the greatest density of potential fire hazards. That helped Howe pinpoint the highest-risk areas that the city should tackle first to look for code violations, such as whether buildings had a second means of egress and operational smoke detectors.

“I didn’t want to deal with one segment or one limited perspective. I wanted to look at the city in its entirety. How can I create a safer city on a holistic level … for all people?” said Howe, who had previously been a fire chief in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Support for a rental registry in Portland grew after a fire killed six people at 20 Noyes St. in 2014. Investigators later found that the home didn’t have working smoke detectors and that the back staircase had been blocked.

“Don’t wait to go through that severe trauma to start your program,” Howe said.

Currently, Bangor does offer a limited, and voluntary, inspection program. The Bangor Fire Department looks through apartment buildings with three or four units in search of issues that increase the risk of a deadly fire, such as dumpsters positioned too close to a building, no second means of egress, doors that are locked or blocked, or no carbon monoxide or smoke detectors.

Since 2015, the fire department has inspected 305 of 509 three- and four-unit buildings in the city, Emery, the director of community and economic development, said. That’s about 1,150 rental units out of what Wallace estimates is a total of 8,000 units in the city.

The fire department doesn’t closely examine plumbing or electrical work, and there’s no real consequence if owners don’t fix the problems. The fire department has referred a small number of issues to the code office to follow up on, said Assistant Chief Phil Hamm, though he didn’t have a specific number.

“We’re not looking to go in and enforce code. That’s what code enforcement is,” Hamm said. “We’re the fire prevention side.”

That’s why Wallace said he wants the city to require landlords to register their apartment buildings.

“If you go voluntary, you’ll get the good ones,” Wallace said. “The guys we’re really after here, the problem properties, they’re going to remain back if it’s not mandatory.”

Charlie Eichacker contributed to this report. Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

 



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