AUGUSTA — Concern that the city could be subsidizing the rent of tenants living in dangerous, unsanitary apartment buildings has city councilors considering setting minimum standards and requiring inspections to ensure compliance with safety codes in rental units for those who receive General Assistance housing money from the city.

City Manager William Bridgeo said at Thursday’s council meeting city officials have tried unsuccessfully to adopt similar ordinances over the past 15 years, but they were voted down. He said the problem has become more acute and intense in recent years, with city officials encountering more hazardous living conditions in rental units.

Raenae Moore, the city’s health officer, said rental units in the city have been allowed to get worse and worse.

“You’ve since had that many years of deterioration of these buildings with no reason or incentive for landlords to put money into them,” Moore said. “Personally, I’m really not interested in listening to landlords be crybabies when the reimbursement they receive (from the city through General Assistance) goes up and I go into units that literally haven’t seen a new coat of paint in 50 years. And bedbugs — I’ve had people come in and say, ‘I’d rather go back to jail than stay in these units, because jail is at least sanitary.’ I have grown men and elderly people who go into these units, come to me crying, with bedbug bites all over them. And I don’t have the ability hold them to a General Assistance standard.”

Bridgeo and city councilors said the city has many fine landlords and excellent rental properties, and Bridgeo said input from building owners would be considered as part of crafting any resulting ordinances.

Fires in apartment buildings and incidences of city officials shhutting down of apartment buildings and ordering their tenants out because of safety code violations have raised concern about some of the rental housing stock in Augusta, Bridgeo said.

The city has closed seven apartment buildings, plus one floor of an eighth building, together totaling 42 units in the last year because the buildings had safety code violations.

The city doesn’t seize the buildings in those cases, but forbids the owner from renting out the units until they are brought up to code.

Fire Chief Roger Audette said his biggest concern is that apartments have adequate alarms and exits so people can get out of burning buildings.

The city appears to have contributed to older buildings not being kept up to date with safety codes.

Addressing a question from Councilor David Rollins, who said he is a landlord himself, Audette said city officials previously, and incorrectly, allowed landlords of older buildings not to keep their buildings up to code, because at the time they were considered to be grandfathered.

He said a couple of years ago the city attorney provided officials with an interpretation of safety code rules that indicated landlords of older buildings are not grandfathered when it comes to safety issues.

“My understanding is the law was not interpreted correctly in the city of Augusta,”Audette said. “We got that interpretation of it, and have been following it since. There is no grandfathering when it comes to the life safety code.”

Audette showed slides of buildings in the city that don’t meet code, including a Northern Avenue apartment building, since destroyed by fire, that only had a wooden ladder as a secondary means of egress, failing to meet codes. The wooden ladder was engulfed by flames during the fire.

Audette said two of the three units in that apartment building were subsidized.

Bridgeo said a proposed rental housing standards ordinance could require the city to inspect apartments to ensure they are up to code before the city provides General Assistance money to tenants.

Bridgeo said the city typically helps 100 to 120 low-income residents pay for housing with General Assistance, which is funded by a combination of city and state money.

Councilor Cecil Munson said a housing inspector who has worked in other cities said when similar ordinances have been enacted elsewhere, safety of rental units improved. There are federal housing standards, Munson noted, “but when comes time to enforce them at the local level, there’s no ordinance. So we have no teeth.”

Several landlords attended Thursday’s council meeting, but they were not given an opportunity to speak when councilors considered the issue. If an ordinance prop[osal does result from the discussion, a public hearing would take place.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]

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