PORTLAND — As the task force created to evaluate fire safety and building codes issues prepares its report for the City Council, a fledgling coalition of city tenants remains unhappy it was not included in discussions.
The Fire Safety Task Force established by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian discussed its recommendations last week at a City Hall public meeting, including the creation of a new position for a “housing safety official,” three new inspectors, and possible proactive inspections of rental buildings with three or more apartments.
The full task force recommendations will be presented to the City Council Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall.
During a Jan. 29 meeting with more than a dozen members of the Portland Tenant Coalition, members complained the task force ignored tenants when it was formed and in meetings throughout December and January.
“It sounds to me they are placing added responsibility on us, which is not fair,” said Asher Platts, a renter and former Maine Green Independent legislative candidate.
Coalition members also encouraged the city to ensure renters would not be evicted while buildings are brought up to code, a view shared by task force member Katie McGovern.
McGovern, of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, met with the coalition at its Jan. 2 meeting, but does not represent them.
The task force, led by Julie Sullivan, acting chief of the city Department of Health and Human Services, met through two phases to look at city fire and building codes, how complaints and inspections are handled, and what changes could be made to make apartments safer.
The task force was formed in the wake of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. that killed six people. Some of the victims were friends of Grace Damon, who formed the Tenant’s Coalition with Catherine Wilson, whose son lived at the multi-unit building, but was not home the morning of the fire.
On Jan. 21, State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said the cause of the fire was an improperly disposed of cigarette, which ignited trash on the porch and spread inside because the front door was left open.
The fire killed tenants tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26, city resident Christopher Conlee, 25, Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson, 26, and Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland.
Thomas said there were blocked exits and no working smoke alarms in the house. His report has been forwarded to the Cumberland County district attorney for a possible criminal investigation.
Building owner Gregory Nisbet, of 124 Noyes St., faces four wrongful death lawsuits because of the fire and received a city permit to tear the house down on Jan. 30.
While recommending the city add to its inspections staff, the task force also suggested prioritizing the complaints that generate inspections for code violations and cross-training inspectors to be versed in building and life-safety codes, but did not favor using third-party inspectors who would publish findings on a city website.
“There is no third-party inspection of this ilk in this industry,” task force member Stuart O’Brien, who is also the city Planning Board chairman, said.
The task force also suggests a more formal inspection checklist and noted the Southern Maine Landlords’ Association has proposed a new checklist on fire safety for members to use when renting to new tenants.
Landlord association member Crandall Toothaker favored a wider inspection program for the city’s 17,000 units, contained in about 3,300 properties.
“I believe everything that is rented should be inspected,” he said, while he and association member Brit Vitalius said tenants who disconnect fire alarms or create other hazards should also be cited.
At the tenants’ coalition meeting, Tom MacMillan, also a former Green legislative candidate, said utility services to apartments should not be disconnected if the landlord has not paid bills.
A large component of the task force recommendations involve public education. Fire Department Assistant Chief Keith Gautreau said he is developing new programs for elementary school students, college students, young adults and landlords.