BRUNSWICK — Several Dunning Street residents were left homeless Wednesday when the Fire Department declared their apartment building unsafe for occupancy.
The building’s owner, however, disputed that the code violations cited by the department required an evacuation, and suggested his property is being singled out for enforcement.
Public safety officials issued the evacuation order for the three-story, 11-unit building at 9 Dunning St. early Wednesday afternoon. The town’s public assistance office is providing temporary housing and transportation for the residents.
Shortly after the order was posted, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson issued a press release saying the department had been working with the owner of the building, Curtis Pass, for nearly a year to remedy deficiencies with “life safety codes” discovered during an inspection last November.
According to Emerson, Pass received numerous extensions and missed a July 31 deadline to make the necessary improvements, including installing new fire doors and windows, and clearing trash and debris from emergency exits.
The department conducted another inspection on Sept. 12 and found many of the issues still existed. When Pass had made no attempt to contact the town, it ordered the evacuation, Emerson said.
The town code enforcement officer has the authority to declare a building unfit for human habitation by issuing a written order to vacate the property within a time frame the officer “deems reasonable.”
“Enforcement of this magnitude is not taken lightly, but at this time in this process we feel it is the safest way to proceed,” Emerson said in the press release.
But Pass, speaking at the apartment building Wednesday evening, said he had no indication that Emerson was planning to evacuate his building.
“I was blindsided by this,” he said.
Most of the 23 violations listed by Emerson are the result of new, more stringent regulations included in a recent revision to the life safety codes, Pass claimed.
He said he has been working on the list as best he can since the department brought the violations to his attention, and believes he has only two issues left to address.
One of those, he said, was the installation of a new fire door to the building’s laundry room; the other is the installation of a new windows in a ground-floor apartment, Pass said.
Now, in an effort to get his tenants back into the building as soon as possible, Pass said he’s going to remove the clothes dryer and be forced to seal off the apartment and evict the tenants, to be able to make immediate, permanent changes.
“There’s no reason for this,” Pass said. “If Emerson was willing to work with me on this and let me finish this in my time, not some artificial time, this could all be done.
“I am not a slumlord,” he continued. “This is totally uncalled for. It’s wrong.”
Pass wasn’t the only one caught off guard by the enforcement action: tenants were also unaware they would be forced out of their homes, leaving many to wonder what will happen if they can’t move back.
Sitting in an easy chair in his second-floor apartment Wednesday, Jon Tobey, 63, said he doesn’t have anywhere to go if he isn’t allowed to come back to the building.
Tobey has emphysema and a history of heart disease, and breathes with the aid of an oxygen tank. He said he has lived in the one-bedroom apartment for 20 years.
Although the building has its share of issues – the police are called frequently to settle disputes or quiet parties that have gotten out of control – Tobey said he never thought the building was dangerous or a fire hazard until the Fire Department told him he had to leave.
Pass has always been a good landlord, he added.
Even though the town has arranged for him to stay at a motel for the next few nights, Tobey said he’s worried: he has no family in the area and won’t be able to come up with the money to find a new apartment right away.
“I don’t know what would happen to me if I couldn’t live here anymore,” he said.
Tobey’s next door neighbor, Kelley Smyre, 24, is losing his apartment after moving in less than a month ago. But he said he still counts himself lucky; he recently got a job, and feels confident that he can find a new place to live if he has to.
His neighbors aren’t so fortunate, Smyre said: most of the 18 people in the building live on fixed incomes and several struggle with mental health issues, he said.
“I’m lucky enough that I can get an apartment next month,” Smyre said. “But most people here can’t, they don’t have anything, no money, no family, no vehicle, nothing.”
Residents are being offered rooms in a local motel by Brunswick’s Department of Human Services. Rod Moody, the department’s assistant administrator, said the town would provide housing through the weekend and then work on a plan for longer-term assistance.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Emerson said it isn’t uncommon for the department to evacuate dangerous structures, but this case is more dramatic because of the building’s size.
He insisted that the deficiencies were severe enough to warrant the steps taken by the department and could have been life-threatening in the event of a fire.
“It’s hard to put a crystal ball on it, but these are all deficiencies out of the life safety code book that’s adopted both locally and statewide,” he said.
Pass still has an opportunity to fix the errors and come into compliance, Emerson said, but also may likely be subject to fines if the situation goes unresolved.
The 9 Dunning St,. apartment building that was evactuated Wednesday, Sept. 17, after being declared unsafe by the Brunswick Fire Department.
A sign posted at 9 Dunning St. in Brunswick on Wednesday, Sept. 17, tells residents the building has been declared unsafe.
Jon Tobey, one of the tenants of 9 Dunning St. in Brunswick. He said he doesn’t know where he’ll end up after the Fire Department on Wednesday declared the building unsafe for occupancy.