AUGUSTA — The city closed two apartment buildings Wednesday on Jefferson Street, displacing 12 tenants who officials say were living in quarters that would have been hard to escape in an emergency.
The buildings at 1 and 3 Jefferson St., owned by the Lewiston-based Ray Corp., are the eighth and ninth apartment buildings closed by the city over the past year for code violations.
Rob Overton, an Augusta code enforcement officer, said another Ray Corp. building at 3 Washington St. Place could be closed later this month for similar violations after a 90-day order to fix violations expires.
With the closing of the Jefferson Street buildings’ eight units, city records say 50 housing units, including a floor of another building that the city shut down, have been closed for code violations over the past year in Augusta.
Rob Overton, an Augusta code enforcement officer, said the Lewiston corporation, owned by Rob Ray, was notified of several code violations in the buildings in May.
“In fact, we feel now, the building’s in worse condition than it was last spring,” Overton said of the 3 Jefferson St. property, a three-story, six-unit building.
Ray was at the building Wednesday, but he told police and city officials he did not want a Kennebec Journal reporter and photographer on his property and officials said he didn’t want to comment.
Overton said the city thinks Ray had been operating the buildings as boarding houses, renting rooms short-term without leases. Boarding houses are typically held to higher code standards than apartment buildings, Overton said.
Means of egress, Overton said, was the main issue in both buildings. One stairway on the side of the 3 Jefferson St. building was the only way out of third-floor apartments.
The other building also had only one way of exiting rooms. Overton said state codes say other than a kitchen and bathroom, all rooms in homes must have secondary ways to escape besides a main entryway, such as windows.
Roughly a year ago, Overton said, officials already had ordered the closure of the second floor of 1 Jefferson St., a two-story, four-unit building, after windows were deemed too narrow to easily escape through in case of emergency.
The closings are another example of a continuing crackdown on poor housing stock in Augusta. City Manager William Bridgeo said at a City Council meeting last month that buildings are aging and deteriorating, a problem that has gotten worse in recent years.
The council is considering adopting an ordinance that would require tenants who receive General Assistance money from the city for housing to consent to inspections of their units.
An attorney for landlords called that idea “extremely burdensome” and said it could lead to landlords abandoning buildings.
Tenants of the Jefferson Street buildings were alerted Tuesday night that the building would be closed, and Overton said nobody was made homeless, because Ray arranged for them to stay elsewhere.
However, some were sent to Ray Corp. buildings as far away as Rumford, according to one tenant.
Weston MacMaster, 48, said he had “no problems” with his Augusta apartment, but he wasn’t aware until recently of the owner’s problems with the city.
MacMaster said the building he was sent to in Rumford was freshly remodeled but had no furniture or appliances. He also said he needs access to a hospital because of medical conditions, which is why he liked living in Augusta.
Property-tax records in Rumford show that the company owns five buildings there. In Lewiston, 2013 records show four buildings owned by Ray Corp.
City records show the company owns five buildings in Augusta, comprising 15 housing units.
Along with the two closed buildings on Jefferson Street and the one on Washington Street Place, it has a single-family home at 755 South Belfast Ave. and a two-unit apartment building at 44 Washington St.
Richard Kent, Rumford’s code enforcement officer, said the company has rehabilitated buildings there. Other than a chimney fire that caused a problem the company later corrected, the town has had few problems with them, he said.
Gildace Arsenault, director of planning and code enforcement in Lewiston, called the company “very pleasant to deal with,” and the only issues the city has had with them stemmed from the company starting rehabilitation jobs without permits.
Tammie Strout, who lives in the Ray Corp.-owned Washington Street Place building in Augusta that could be closed later this month, said she wouldn’t be willing to move as far away as Rumford if her building is closed. She said she’s lived in the city her whole life.
“I don’t want to move to Rumford,” she said. “I want to stay in Augusta.”
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652