PORTLAND — A fledgling tenant’s association plans to proceed with advocacy and education after its first meeting Jan. 2 drew about a dozen tenants and landlords.
Formed by Grace Damon and Catherine Wilson, the group spent two hours outlining basic issues regarding safety, city rental rates, tenants’ rights, and the exclusion of tenants from a city task force focusing on fire safety following a Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. that killed six people.
Damon, who founded A Space for Grace, a community gathering spot at 1 Marginal Way, was a friend of residents of the Noyes Street home and has raised almost $6,300 to help victims on a Go Fund Me site.
Almost $6,000 has already been distributed, she said Dec. 31, in contributions to victims and those displaced by the fire.
“I’ve been splitting everything up nine ways,” she said. “I feel really good about how it ended up. I just had to track down the facts.”
Wilson’s son, Justin Irish, lived at 20 Noyes St., but was not home when the fire broke out. The cause of the fire has not been disclosed by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
Five of the six victims, tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26; city resident Christopher Conlee, 25, and Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson, 26, died at the scene from smoke inhalation.
Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, escaped the burning building, but suffered burns over 98 percent of his body and died Nov. 4 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
The fire was an impetus for forming the group, as was Damon’s belief tenants are not adequately represented on the task force established by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian.
But the two-hour meeting ranged beyond the fire and was attended by task force members Katie McGovern of Pine Tree Legal Assistance and landlords Carleton Winslow and Crandall Toothaker.
McGovern, who represents low-income residents on matters of housing and rental issues, does not represent the tenants’ group, but offered assistance by taking a list of concerns to Monday’s task force meetings and offering to lead workshops on tenants’ rights.
This is not the first attempt to organize Portland tenants. Ed Democracy, who help lead efforts almost 15 years ago, cautioned the group to keep a narrow focus and avoid issues including rent control, while advocating for more frequent inspections of rental units and enforcement of penalties for violations.
Damon and Wilson shared comments submitted by others on how to avoid trading affordable rents for safe environments, and encouraging city departments to be more transparent about inspections and enforcement.
East End and Munjoy Hill residents Leila Hunter and Mike DeLong said tenant-landlord relations can be frustrating or stacked against the tenants. DeLong said he has fought to have lead paint removed properly and saw his rent double almost a day after his building was sold in August.
“There is very little help for people,” he said. “Pine Tree Legal can only help the poor, and they are overworked.”
Hunter said she wants simplicity in any code changes or new enforcement procedures.
“Tenants are scared and landlords are scared because of what happened on Noyes Street,” she said. “There needs to be information the layman can understand.”
Winslow and Toothaker said landlords are concerned inspections could become costly and ineffective if city departments do not communicate more effectively. The city Planning Department has one inspector who responds to specific complaints, while the Fire Department has its own safety inspections division.
Toothaker noted that some renovations require buildings to be vacated and said even his good tenants do things like use grills on outside decks, in violation of his leases and city ordinances.
“Bad tenants have to be slapped,” he said, “(and) bad landlords have to be slapped.”
Mike Denney, who conducted inspections in Montgomery County, Maryland, and has helped mediate landlord-tenant disputes, said many issues could be resolved by enforcing the existing landlord registry requirements and following up on inspections.
He called the city task force a “knee-jerk reaction to what occurred because they didn’t do their jobs.”
The next tenants’ association meeting will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, at A Space for Grace, which is above the Enterprise Rent-A-Car office at the corner of Forest Avenue, Kennebec Street and Marginal Way.
Grace Damon was friends with several victims of the Nov. 1, 2014, fire at 20-24 Noyes St. in Portland. She said her desire to help led to raising money and forming a group to advocate for tenants’ rights.