AUGUSTA — Landlords could evict tenants who create unsafe conditions in their apartments under a revised proposal that requires inspections of apartments if they are occupied by residents who receive General Assistance from the city.

City Councilor-at-large Jeffrey Bilodeau noted Thursday that sometimes tenants are the ones who make an apartment unsafe or unsanitary. He said he is concerned that the city’s proposed new ordinance regarding rental units that go to tenants receiving General Assistance money could make landlords, or even the city, liable for problems created by tenants.

“What if a tenant destroys an apartment or makes it unsanitary, which is not the landlord’s fault?” Bilodeau said. “Let’s say the apartment passes the initial inspection then the tenant makes it dirty or unsafe. We’re paying for it through General Assistance. What’s the liability to the city?”

Development Director Matt Nazar said that kind of issue is still tenants’ responsibility. He said if the apartment doesn’t meet safety codes, that’s an issue between the tenant and landlord, not the city.
He said such tenants can be evicted by the landlord, like any other tenant who violates the terms of a lease.

Nazar said if a tenant repeatedly trashes an apartment, the city can also stop paying the tenant’s rent with General Assistance money.

“A landlord doesn’t lose any rights to control who he rents to because of this,” said City Manager William Bridgeo. “They can be evicted like anybody else.”

The ordinance, meant to make sure tenants who get housing money from the city aren’t living in unsafe apartments, is expected to go to councilors for a first reading at their Thursday, Nov. 7, business meeting. Mayor William Stokes said the public, landlords included, will have a chance to comment on the proposal during that meeting.

Brian Winchester, an attorney representing the landlords’ group Capital Area Housing Association, said he has several suggestions for how the city could work in a partnership with landlords to achieve the city’s goals.

He said he agrees tenants have a right to a clean, safe place to live, however he doesn’t like aspects of the city’s proposal, including wording that he says is too broad and could give code enforcement officers more power than state law does.

In the last year, the city has declared nine buildings and a floor of another building unsafe for occupancy and ordered tenants of the 50 units in those buildings to move out, prompting the ordinance.

Bridgeo said the city only orders tenants out of a building in cases in which tenants’ lives or safety could be in danger if they were allowed to remain. He noted in most cases when code officers find deficiencies landlords are given time to address them before action is taken.

Nazar said the city would withhold General Assistance payments from landlords who refuse to rent to tenants who receive the city welfare money.

Nazar noted the inspections would focus on safety, such as whether the rental units have working smoke detectors and adequate means of egress such as large enough doors and windows, not general building code issues.

Raenae Moore, health officer and General Assistance administrator for the city, said boarding houses, hotels and other lodging facilities are also subject to the proposed new rules.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
[email protected]