October 8, 2013

Augusta lawmaker wants Maine renters to get three days notice before having to move

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — A local legislator has proposed two laws motivated by the city’s recent apartment closures, but the head of that crackdown said he’s wary of one bill’s key concept that would allow tenants to temporarily stay in closed buildings.

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City of Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton, left, confers with Weston MacMaster Monday outside the apartment building that MacMaster inhabited at One Jefferson Street. MacMaster was forced to relocate to an apartment in Rumford after the city ordered the Augusta apartment building closed due to safety code violations.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he wants to bring clarity to landlord-tenant responsibilities after cities and towns deem a building unfit for habitation under code.

Pouliot, a real estate agent and landlord who lives on Winthrop Court, said one bill would allow tenants to stay in buildings three days past their closure dates so they have ample time to find another place to live.

The other bill would mainly mandate time frames by which landlords must fix issues in buildings, while allowing landlords more flexibility in appealing local decisions, though Pouliot said he’s still working on specifics around where the limits would be set.

The bills are mostly concepts at this point, as only the titles, not the text, have been released. Lawmakers reconvene in January for the second year of the two-year session.

Since the bills were submitted in the second year, they also have an extra hurdle before passage. Bills must be deemed "emergencies" by a panel of legislative leaders in order to be considered by the full Legislature, unlike bills put in the first year. Pouliot said the main aim of the bills is to provide “more workability” for both sides — more clarity for the tenants and clearer expectations for the landlords regarding building repairs.

“In some of these cases, it’s evident that there’s a major problem” in the buildings, but tenants “don’t have many resources, so they move in anyway,” Pouliot said.

“Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean they have to live in substandard housing,” he said.

Many in Augusta have been living in substandard housing. Over the past year, nine apartment buildings and 50 housing units in the capital city have been closed because of code violations.

Rob Overton, the Augusta code enforcement officer who has led the crackdown, said to his knowledge, nobody has been left homeless after the closings because the city and landlords have arranged for alternative housing.

Last week, the city closed two buildings at 1 and 3 Jefferson St., displacing 12 tenants in the buildings owned by the Lewiston-based Ray Corp. after finding numerous code violations.

In that case, Overton said tenants were notified twice, but there was turnover in the buildings between spring and fall.

When he issued that order in May, he said tenants were notified. But since then, he said the Ray Corp. was operating the house against code as a boarding home, so only two tenants living at the buildings last week were also there in May.

That meant that many tenants didn’t know of the building’s imminent closure until Monday, when Overton said he began notifying tenants two days before the closure. They were all out Tuesday night.

Overton said while all tenants should be notified, the three-day limit suggested by Pouliot could handcuff officials from ordering people out of particularly dangerous buildings on short notice.

That happened in August, when tenants had just a few hours’ notice before the closure of a 12-unit building at 9 Laurel St. Overton said then that the city doesn’t typically order buildings immediately closed, but circumstances there made it necessary.

“I’d hate to have our abilities limited with a broad rule when we go into buildings and see situations that are incredibly dangerous,” Overton said of Pouliot’s bill. “I can only see that 72 hours putting people in more dangerous situations.”

Brian Winchester, an Augusta attorney representing landlord members of the Capital Area Housing Association, said the three-day notice conceived by Pouliot may not go far enough to protect tenants.

But he said it is “certainly better than what’s going on right now, where they’re throwing them out on the street on the same day.”

Pouliot said the bills are an attempt to balance the needs of landlords who want to get profit out of buildings and tenants who want good deals.

However, the problem of bad housing, he said, is getting dire in the city.

“People call Augusta disgusta, and a lot of it has to do with the buildings they see when they drive around town,” he said. “And they are disgusting in many cases.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@centralmaine.com

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Matthew Pouliot

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