Settlement pending in Portland renters rights lawsuit

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PORTLAND — Former residents and the former owner of a Parkside apartment complex are close to settling a lawsuit that ensued after evictions that illuminated the discord over tenants rights in the city.

While the class-action suit continues over security deposits that were not returned, the buildings at 61-69 Grant St. are being refurbished by a new owner, with exterior work expected to begin next month.

The lawsuit, filed by Roger Hunnewell, Gina Fortin (now using her maiden name, Alfiero) and Brenda Pierce against Steven Fowler, former owner of 61-69 Grant St., has been given preliminary approval by Justice Michaela Murphy.

Murphy is hearing the suit in the Portland-based Business and Consumer Court in Cumberland County Superior Court. On March 15, she said the proposed settlement requiring Fowler to pay $30,000 seemed “fair, reasonable and adequate,” according to court documents.

The fund will pay court and attorney’s fees, administrative costs and refund security deposits to residents who lived there from 2010-2015 and are eligible to be part of the class.

Terms for seeking a part of the settlement can be viewed at a website set up by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The plaintiffs, represented by Peter Mancuso and Max Brooks, said Fowler did not turn over their security deposits to AEG Holdings when he sold the four, six-unit apartment buildings to the company in May 2015. The deposits were not placed in a separate account, according to the complaint, but were co-mingled with Fowler’s other assets.

Through his attorney, Peter Bulger, Fowler initially contested the claims, but the sides then entered mediation ordered by Murphy last November. The settlement terms provide payments of actual damages, or $500, or a month’s rent, whichever is highest.

The attorneys will be paid $15,000 of the proposed settlement, minus $4,000 to administer the distribution of settlements to plaintiffs. The $11,000 is 36 percent of the entire fund set aside by Fowler, who was doing business as SHW Properties.

The deadline to file a claim in the suit is July 13. Murphy is scheduled to make her final decision Sept. 17, according to documents.

The buildings on Grant Street became a focal point in efforts to reform tenants’ rights after Fowler sold them to AEG Holdings, a New Jersey company that was represented locally by John Le.

On Dec. 23, 2015, tenants in the 24 units were told by AEG they had to move by March 1, 2016. In February 2016, Le said the buildings were being cleared for repairs and upgrades.

At the end of February, Mayor Ethan Strimling spoke with Le and got a promise Le would not seek court action to evict remaining tenants as long as the tenants were actively searching for new homes.

Clean-up time

The repairs and upgrades promised by AEG Holdings are now being made by the new owner, Port Property Management.

“This is the first property I’ve done that has been this vacant,” Port Property’s Tom Watson said Tuesday in a top-floor unit at 61 Grant St.

About six weeks after Le met with Strimling, the company divested itself of the property. According to the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, AEG signed a quit claim on the properties April 14 to Jeddy LLC.

The company is owned by Jeff Oddy, who sold the properties to Fowler in 2010. Oddy, in turn, sold the buildings to Watson, who said three units were occupied when he took over last spring.

He began repairing floors, carpeting stairways, replacing appliances and renovating bathrooms.

“This is sanitation, this was clean up,” he said.

The units are about 50 percent occupied now.

Watson estimated he is spending $15,000 to $25,000 per unit, which includes the upcoming roof, exterior and courtyard work. Rents are up about $200 per month, a necessity because investors want a seven- to 10-year return for spending that much to renovate the units.

Watson said he does not like to fully clear buildings for repairs, and having tenants on hand can make the building more secure.

“As soon as I empty a building, I have no income,” he added.

Watson said he enjoyed renovating the buildings because he is an unabashed fan of Grant Street. The location, nearby amenities and the improving quality of life delight him.

“The sidewalks are huge – great place to have a small barbecue,” he said in an April 21 email. “If I lived on Grant, I’d pull a chair onto the sidewalk in the warmer weather and read with a cup of coffee by my side.”

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

Buildings at 61-69 Grant St. in Portland are being renovated and are 50 percent occupied, owner Tom Watson said April 24.

Tom Watson, owner of 61-69 Grant St., shows renovations at the Parkside apartments on April 24. “This was sanitation, this was cleanup,” he said of ongoing work in Portland.

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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.