AUGUSTA — Landlords warned city officials Thursday that some building owners may abandon their apartments if the city refuses to work with them as they tryto comply with a proposed apartment inspection ordinance.

The proposal, which will be up for a council vote in the coming weeks, would require safety inspections of units occupied by tenants who receive general assistance money from the city to pay for their housing.

Brian Winchester, an attorney who represents local landlords through the Capital Area Housing Association, said while his clients would prefer the city didn’t pass the new ordinance at all, they can live with the currently proposed version, as long as the city is willing to work with them as they try to meet the new inspection requirements.

“Housing needs to be upgraded here, absolutely,” Winchester told city councilors. “I can’t believe the ages of some of these buildings, but there needs to be more of a partnership with the city.”

He suggested the city might consider getting grant money to help landlords pay for upgrades and said many of the people he represents are landlords with only four to eight units.

“They just don’t have the resources to get this implemented, certainly, as quick as the city would like,” he said. “If the city is just going to take the approach (that rental units that don’t meet codes) just need to be fixed, case closed, (landlords) are going to start handing keys over.”

Glen Guerrette, of Guerrette Properties, expressed concern the city could impose too many requirements, including detailed plans for renovations aimed at improving safety. He said landlords and tenants are worried their rental buildings in Augusta could be shut down and tenants forced out.

“What is this ordinance going to do?” said Guerrette, who owns about a dozen rental properties in Augusta. “Are we going to have a lot of vacant buildings? That’s the worry. I’d like to know, could we work together? Because there are a lot of landlords like me. There are some bad apples, but there are a lot of good landlords out there looking to feed their families and provide good housing.”

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. Concerns about those and other unsafe living conditions prompted councilors to consider adopting the ordinance as part of the city’s general assistance provisions.

Landlord Charlie Anderson said many landlords don’t understand the complex safety codes their units are required to meet and are also concerned because safety code requirements are updated every few years.

However, Mayor William Stokes said landlords already have to comply with those safety codes. What would be new, if councilors adopt the proposed ordinance that got the first of two readings on Thursday, would be the city having the right to inspect any rental units of tenants receiving general assistance housing money to make sure the units are safe.

“It’s a very complex subject; I agree with you,” Stokes said of safety codes. “But they are existing law already. No new requirements are being imposed. The ordinance is just designed to give the city the ability to inspect the property when the owner of the property is seeking to use general assistance funding as a rental payment.”

Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, said the city staff is familiar with safety codes and is happy to help landlords understand them.

Councilor David Rollins, who owns an apartment building, said he understands safety codes are complex but suggested the Capital Area Housing Association play a role in educating its members about the codes. He said the city must make sure rental units are safe, both for tenants and for firefighters who may have to respond to a fire or a rescue call in the buildings.

“I understand the scope of the problem and am empathetic to it, on both sides,” Rollins said, “but we can’t have people at risk. We have to be able to see these buildings. I think the spirit here is to work with landlords. We don’t want to play a game of gotcha. We want to play a game of let’s get these buildings up to speed, and let’s get this information out there; because we have to improve the housing.”

Keith Edwards – 621-5647[email protected]

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