South Portland puts owners of 'disorderly houses' on notice

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Police, the city manager and residents who claim Free Street is a hive of drug use, squatters, violence and other illegal activity successfully lobbied city councilors this week to pass the first reading of an ordinance giving the city power to deal with “disorderly houses.” 

“The situation is, in a word, terrifying,” said Christine Marshall, who lives in the Ferry Village neighborhood.

Under the proposed ordinance, which will not go into effect unless it passes a second reading in two weeks, most properties to which the police are called or at which arrests are made three times in any 30-day period would be deemed “disorderly.”

Larger properties would be given more than three calls before triggering the classification, but no more than five police visits would ever be allowed in one month.

Calls for complaints such as crying babies or checks for well-being would not count against a home, Police Chief Ed Googins said. Ultimately, police discretion would determine whether the types of calls that trigger the ordinance were significant enough to deem a house disorderly.

At that point, notice would be sent to the owner or landlord, requiring them to meet with the police chief and work out a plan to address the concerns.

The landlord would be required in most cases to remedy the city’s written concerns within one week. Failure to address the problems, or a subsequent “disorderly” classification within three years of the first, could result in the condemnation of the building and/or legal action by the city against the landlord.

“A disorderly house adversely affects the quality of life for those who live in the area,” City Manager Jim Gailey said in a memo to the council. “In most instances residents fear for their safety because of the activity that is taking place at a nearby home or apartment unit.”

Residents who addressed the council frequently referred to two apartment buildings at 29 and 39 Free St., owned by Robert P. Sprague of Scarborough.  The properties have a combined assessed value of more than $430,000.

According to Googins, officers have been called to those locations at least 97 times in just under two years.

Residents told stories about finding strangers in their homes, hearing screams of “bloody murder” from within apartments, and finding neighbors passed out drunk in their cars while music played so loudly it could be heard inside their homes.

“The impact on these residents shows the inadequacy of laws on the books to deal with these issues,” Googins said. He said many calls lead to arrests, but often the police are called back not long after the arrested person returns home.

Googins also said the problem isn’t limited to Free Street, and that 16 addresses in South Portland would have triggered the disorderly house ordinance at least once in the last four months.

“This ordinance would put pressure on absentee landlords to take care of their properties in order to attract tenants that take pride in their homes and will be good neighbors,” said Pat Doucette, the city’s code enforcement officer.

Councilors also questioned Trish McAllister, Portland’s neighborhood prosecutor. She is in charge of that city’s disorderly house ordinance, which went into effect on May 4.

McAllister said 20 properties in Portland have been designated disorderly, with 16 landlords agreeing to resolution plans with the city. She said she considers the program a great success.

“As a lawyer, I thought I’d be suing people all over the place this summer,” she said. “I haven’t had to bring a single (lawsuit). It’s working really well.”

Robert Sprague, 81, and his wife, Bertha Sprague, 79, have owned the properties on Free Street for more than 40 years. In an interview Tuesday they said their granddaughter, Cathy King, manages the property for them. 

The Spragues said they met with Doucette, representatives from the Police Department and residents back in June. Doucette said that at that time, the Spragues said they were unaware of the problems at the properties.

The Spragues said that after that meeting they started eviction proceedings against their tenants. The building at 29 Free St. is now empty, they said, and the other property’s tenants are supposed to be out soon.

“We’ve always immediately taken care of problems,” Bertha Sprague said. “But you have to go through a legal system. We don’t know what else to do.”

She said eviction is a long process that is often fought by tenants. During that time, the tenants don’t pay rent, but they can’t be kicked out until a judge rules it OK.

McAllister said that in Portland, landlords of disorderly houses receive help from the city in the eviction process. She said a letter from the city declaring the house in violation of city ordinance was often enough to sway a judge to allow the eviction of problem tenants.

The proposed South Portland ordinance also includes a provision for disclosure of building ownership. Gailey and Doucette said that with the proliferation of anonymous limited liability corporations, it can be hard to track down whoever is responsible for a building.

Under the proposed ordinance, owners of building with more than three residential units would be required to submit the name, address and phone number of the person or entity responsible for managing the property, including at least one home phone number of an owner or manager.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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