p-tenants-011409 Wrongs versus rights City's dispute with landlord leaves tenants in the middle
PORTLAND — The city's decision to force some Old Port residents out of their apartments because of landlord negligence put those tenants in an unusual situation, according to a local legal service.
Tenants of 24 apartments at 10 Exchange St. had to be out by the morning of Jan. 12. The evictions stemmed from a year-long battle between the city and landlord Joseph Soley over safety code violations.
Businesses on the first and second floors of the building are being allowed to stay for 45 days, City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said. She said Soley must take steps within those 45 days to fix safety issues that will bring the building up to code as a commercial building. To be up to code for residential use, she said, a "significant amount" more work is needed.
Clegg said the sprinkler and fire alarm wiring in the building isn't connected properly and would not alert the entire building to a fire.
"Also, there aren't fire doors," Clegg said, "(and) there is inadequate lighting in the hallways."
Two residential tenants were given until Wednesday, Jan. 14, to find alternative housing. Katherine McGovern, an attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, is representing the tenants and said Tuesday they were working with Soley to find a place to live.
McGovern said while her organization, which is a nonprofit legal service for lower-income Mainers, became involved in the situation because of its representation of three tenants, the city should have involved the residents of the building much earlier with regard to what was going on.
"The city raised the question and a deadline was imposed," she said. "We think tenants should really be part of the process."
The battle between the city and landlord and the involvement of business tenants also made the situation unusual, McGovern said.
The time allowed for residents to find alternative housing was not adequate, she said. While all the tenants may be out of the building, it is unclear whether they found other apartments or are being forced to stay with friends and family.
"We don't know the outcome for everyone," McGovern said.
According to Pine Tree, there are steps tenants can take to protect themselves if they find they face eviction or believe they are living in unsafe conditions. The organization's Web site, ptla.org, includes information on tenants' rights and other housing laws.
McGovern said while Pine Tree only serves lower-income clients, tenants with problems should feel free to call to see if they qualify for assistance. She said putting correspondence to landlords in writing and notifying local code enforcement officers to safety and health issues can provide leverage for tenants.
Clegg said Portland police officers were expected to go through the Exchange Street building Tuesday morning and make sure all the residents are out, then padlocks would be installed on each apartment door. Soley is required to have a building manager on the premises 24 hours a day to make sure no one tries to occupy the apartments, she said.
The city discovered the fire code violations in the building in the fall of 2007 after a small trash fire in an elevator shaft, Clegg said. A safety inspection was conducted shortly after that and Soley was notified about the violations.
"It was an 18-month effort to try to get him to correct it," she said, noting that Soley's attorney has conceded that the building is not safe.