Portland renters get time, aid as eviction arguments continue

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PORTLAND — Over a plate of fried chicken and pizza Monday night, Ronnie Icke talked about losing his apartment.

“Actually, we didn’t have a good Christmas at all,” he said.

On Dec. 23, 2015, Icke and his companion, Margaret Peters, received notice they would have to leave their apartment at 61-69 Grant St. in Parkside by March 1.

Twenty people were asked to leave, said John Le, development manager for AEG Holdings, a New Jersey-based company that bought the buildings last spring.

“My intent was never to create a divide in the city,” Le said Feb. 25, a day after he agreed not to pursue court action against the 14 remaining tenants, as long as they make efforts to find new housing.

Le said he gave them more than double the required 30 days to leave. He said renovations needed in the buildings meant they had to be unoccupied.

“We needed everybody out because it requires a complete update,” he said. “We were above what the city required and we were still vilified.”

Le was criticized again at a community meeting Monday at the Parkside Neighborhood Center, when City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and representatives from the city, Opportunity Alliance, and Shalom House  met with residents to see what assistance they could provide. The city has already offered to help by paying security deposits for new apartments.

City councilors and Mayor Ethan Strimling are also considering what the city might do to prevent large-scale evictions, even as Le and other landlords insist there are times when buildings have to be completely emptied to be repaired.

The process

Eviction requires a court order and can be enforced by sheriff’s deputies or other law enforcement officials. However, a landlord can present an order to vacate premises, either for lease violations or in order to clear a building. Tenants living month-to-month without a lease can be asked to leave within 30 days.

Failure to leave allows a landlord to petition for a court order requiring the tenant to leave, and the tenant can contest the order in court.

“A lot of (evictions) end up getting resolved in a courthouse hallway,” Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney Katie McGovern said Feb. 26. “Often what people need is time to find a place, and (to) save some money.”

In 2015, McGovern said she worked on 172 eviction cases; 159 were resolved in negotiations. Twelve cases went before a judge, and she won 11 of them, she said.

McGovern also called the “no cause” notices like those issued on Grant Street relatively rare, but also more difficult for a tenant to contest in court because the orders do not cite any specific lease violations as a cause for eviction.

McGovern said she could still contest any eviction orders in court and was confident she had a case, while declining to comment on what potential violations she could cite. She also wants the city to ban the practice as part of reforms to protect tenants in a market where rents increased by an estimated 17 percent last year.

Icke and Peters, meanwhile, attended the Parkside meeting and said they hoped to find a new place on Tuesday, a nearby one-bedroom apartment with room for their cat.

It took them almost two months to find a new home, which Peters can afford thanks to a housing voucher from Shalom House, which provides mental health services in Cumberland and York counties.

‘Caught in a trap’

It also took Westbrook residents Al Wheeler and Elizabeth Worden two months to find a new home after another Portland landlord, Crandall Toothaker, asked residents at 52 Wilmot St., about two blocks from City Hall, to find new homes.

Wheeler, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said conditions in the Wilmot Street building Toothaker had just bought were deplorable, with leaky plumbing, substandard wiring and little heat.

“I don’t have to deal with a leaky ceiling anymore,” he said, noting his first-floor apartment leaked when an upstairs neighbor used the kitchen sink.

The housing search was complicated by the prior building owner not turning over security deposits to Toothaker. He did return a portion of the deposit to Wheeler, but Wheeler said he also withheld rent in order to have money to put down on the Westbook apartment he moved to 11 months ago.

Tenants seeking new rentals in Portland are often asked to provide a security deposit, first and last month’s rent, and to pay application fees.

“I can’t come up with $2,500 to move into some place,” said Wheeler, who lives on a military disability pension. “I was lucky if I had $200 left after I paid my rent.”

The block of houses on Wilmot Street that Toothaker bought last year are active and noisy these days while they’re being renovated. Once completed, the renovations that extend around the corner on Cumberland Avenue will restore the historic aspects of the buildings and link with his other projects.

“There were some wonderful people caught here in a trap,” he said of the tenants who left so renovations could begin.

Al Wheeler’s former apartment is gutted and pitted, the floors and walls stripped away. Next door, contractors are rebuilding an apartment house from the foundation up.

“It was caving in on itself because the walls were not exactly load bearing to begin with,” project manager Keith Knudson said.

Toothaker acknowledged the new units would be unaffordable to Wheeler and other former residents, but said city leaders need to understand how decrepit and unsafe some housing stock is before they try to regulate solutions.

He gave 18 Wilmot St. tenants 30-day notices last year, but did not take anyone to court for failure to comply. Unlike Wheeler and McGovern, he said shifting tenants between units during renovations is not practical.

“It is absolutely not safe for a tenant to be in a building when it is a major construction site,” Toothaker said.

John Le agreed, and said his work on Grant Street will be a major improvement over current conditions.

“Am I remorseful? No. I am trying to run a business. I don’t build things unless I want to live there,” he said.

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

Ronnie Icke and Maggie Peters chat with landlord Crandall Toothaker on Monday at the Parkside Neighborhood Center in Portland. Icke and Peters hoped to find a new place to live Tuesday after being asked to leave their Grant Street apartment.

After Westbrook residents Al Wheeler and Elizabeth Worden were asked to leave their home at 52 Wilmot St. in Portland it took them two months to find a new home.

Crandall Toothaker, who owns 52 Wilmot St. in Portland, shows ongoing rehabilitation work Monday that required him to ask tenants to leave. “It is absolutely unsafe for a tenant to be in a building when it is a major construction site,” he said.

About a year ago, owner Crandall Toothaker asked his tenants at 52 Wilmot St. and in surrounding buildings to leave so rehab and repairs could be completed.

The 14 tenants remaining in these apartment houses at 61-69 Grant St., seen Feb. 25, were allowed to stay past March 1, but owners said renovations and needed repairs require the buildings to be empty.

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.