Portland fire safety task force adds landlords, aims for Feb. 2 public workshop

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PORTLAND — The city task force evaluating fire and safety codes, and inspection procedures, began a second phase of meetings Monday, with a goal of presenting recommendations to a City Council committee Feb. 9.

The City Hall meeting also brought new faces to the table as the conversation shifts from the technical merits of codes to the potential effects of beefed-up inspections and a possible new city office or department to better coordinate enforcement.

Landlords Carleton Winslow and Crandall Toothaker, Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Katie McGovern, and Julie Gregor of the Portland Housing Authority have joined the task force, which will also hold a public workshop before recommendations are presented to the council’s Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee.

The workshop is scheduled for the week of Feb. 2.

McGovern, who works with low-income residents on housing and rental legal issues, also presented a list of concerns from a fledgling tenants’ association formed by Grace Damon of A Space for Grace and Catherine Wilson, whose son lived at 20-24 Noyes St. before a Nov. 1, 2014, fire that killed six people.

While not representing the association, McGovern noted the group’s unhappiness with the exclusion of renters from the task force, and noted its concerns include more transparency about housing complaints and records.

“(They) feel like they are in a position of having to trade affordable housing for safety,” she said, adding the same is true of clients she represents at Pine Tree Legal.

Winslow, who has owned city rental properties for more than 40 years and is a past president and current board member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said he is concerned a new city office or department for inspections would be ineffective because of a lack of communication and funding.

The task force, which also includes Assistant Fire Chief Keith Gautreau, Neighborhood Prosecutor Rich Bianculli, Inspections Division Director Tammy Munson, Planning Board Chairman Stuart O’Brien and Inspections Deputy Director Jon Rioux, and is led by Julie Sullivan of the city Health and Human Services Department, maintained its stance that public education is the most effective way to make rental housing safer.

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, who established the task force after the Nov. 1 fire, suggested the inspections and enforcement would not require an entirely new department, but could exist as a smaller office where city staff warn inspectors about potential problems they encounter while working.

The prospect of shifting inspections from a complaint-based system to a more compulsory basis is likely, although which or how many of the city’s 17,000 rental units would be included remains undetermined.

Toothaker said he and other landlords are concerned an inspection program staffed by third-party inspectors would lead inspectors to list any violation, no matter how slight, in order to protect themselves. The result would be costly and lack priorities for needed repairs, he said.

Gautreau said he envisions inspections being made for basic safety issues, while Rioux suggested “systematic spot checks” would help enforce safety codes. He also suggested any additional inspectors be assigned by areas of population density. The city currently has one municipal inspector to investigate complaints, while the Fire Department has its own inspection unit for fire safety.

Winslow said a more immediate step is to enforce what is already on the books, including having landlords register with the city and making sure tenants are not creating their own hazards by disabling smoke detectors.

“I would like to see some high-profile enforcements, and I would include tenants,” he said.

Task force meetings are open to the public, but public comment is not allowed. The next task force meeting is at 2:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 12, in City Hall Room 24.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.