AUGUSTA — City councilors unanimously approved an ordinance that gives the city the right to inspect apartments to make sure they are safe when city money helps pay the rent.

The new ordinance will require landlords who rent to tenants who receive General Assistance housing money from the city to allow city workers in to inspect those apartments, and the common areas of buildings, to make sure they meet safety codes.

The ordinance faced no opposition when councilors approved it Thursday, though landlords have previously said they are concerned about it.

The ordinane will take place in 30 days after councilors voted against adopting it as an emergency, which would have had it take effect immediately.

City Manager William Bridgeo said, however a General Assistance recipient doesn’t have to wait the 30 days to report a serious safety hazard to the city, and the apartment will still be inspected.

That’s because the requirement that rental units meet safety codes is not new, and apartment buildings are already required to meet them. All that is new is the requirement that the city be allowed to inspect them, even without a tenant complaint. The city already has the right to inspect rental units, Bridgeo said, when there is a complaint from a tenant about unsafe conditions.

Councilor Michael Byron sought to adopt the ordinance as an emergency. He said tenants may fear being evicted by their landlord if they report a potential safety code violation to the city.

“I think this is an emergency,” Byron said. “Those folks are going into buildings we cannot inspect unless we ask the landlord, voluntarily, to let us do that. There are tenants using (General Assistance) money going into a unit that may not be safe, but will not call us for fear of being evicted.”

However, Byron could not convince six councilors — the minimum needed to reconsider the ordinance — to join him in declaring it an emergency measure.

Stephen Langsdorf, city attorney, noted the city’s code enforcement and health office workers will already be busy this month inspecting other apartment buildings.

That is because earlier Thursday, in a court proceeding unrelated to the city’s new General Assistance housing inspection ordinance, a district court judge agreed to issue the city administrative search warrants to inspect eight apartment buildings owned by major local landlord Jim Pepin. The city has 45 days to do those inspections.

The ordinance was proposed in response to concerns about the safety of rental properties in Augusta. In the last year, the city has shut down 11 apartment buildings, and a floor of a 12th, for what city staff deemed serious safety code violations. The most recent was Thursday, when three families living at 196 Northern Ave. had to move out because the city declared the building, which lacked heat and hot water and had structural issues, unsafe.

Resident Gina Turcotte, the founder and president of the Maine Tenant’s Justice League, said she strongly supports the new ordinance.

“We understand, as human beings, the quality of our housing directly affects the quality of our existence, which directly affects the quality of our choices, which directly affects the quality of labor we’re able to give, which directly affects our ability to survive,” she said. “All those things are interconnected. We all share one thing. The need for safe, decent housing.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647[email protected]

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