Neighbors and city officials on Sunday painted a picture of the Portland apartment house where five young adults died in a fire as a well-known nuisance property that had generated complaints about trash in the yard, junk furniture on the porch and noise.

Mayor Michael Brennan said the fire may change the way the city handles inspections of rental properties, but that he was unaware of any problems at that particular house or with the city’s inspection policies.

“I’m certainly going to talk to the city manager, fire (department) and other code enforcement (officials) and see if we need to take more aggressive action and pay more attention to some of the conditions of buildings within the city,” Brennan said Sunday.

The large number of renters in Portland, he said, “probably means we should be paying more attention … and make us more vigilant going forward with code issues.”

Carol Schiller, president of the University Neighborhood Organization, called for a more comprehensive rental inspection program. She said Portland has many 20-something tenants in old houses, and some landlords do a poor job of maintaining the homes.

“Our city needs to do more,” said Schiller, a neighbor of 20-24 Noyes St., where Saturday’s fire occurred. “We really need to beef up our inspections.”

The apartment house was the subject of a formal complaint to the city by Schiller.

Schiller said she emailed the city directly in May asking for it to be inspected because of the trash and junk furniture on the porch and in the yard. She declined to share the email Sunday, saying she had given it to the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is investigating Saturday’s blaze.

City Councilor Ed Suslovic, who represents the neighborhood, said he, too, had passed on complaints about 20-24 Noyes St. to city code enforcement officials.

The city has general fire safety code compliance rules posted on its website, and a more detailed “Life Safety Code” for multi-unit buildings. The Life Safety Code expressly states that it does not apply to one- or two-unit buildings “unless they are rented in their entirety and are the subject of a complaint to the City’s Office of Building Inspections and Code Enforcement.”

The property at 20-24 Noyes St. is a two-unit building rented in its entirety that was the subject of a formal city complaint by Schiller.

Gregory Nisbet, the owner of the apartment house that burned, did not return calls Sunday, but said late Saturday that he was “horribly devastated by what’s going on.” In a brief written statement, he said, “Our hearts go out to the friends and the families of all the lost and injured.”

Nisbet, who owns Downeast Realty in South Portland, owns at least two other rental properties in the neighborhood and lives down the street from the property that burned, according to city property records online.

Some of his past and present tenants expressed mixed opinions about him Saturday.

Nisbet, who would not answer any questions during a brief telephone interview late Saturday, said he was “working closely with the fire and police to aid in the investigation.” Fire marshals were expecting to talk to him Sunday afternoon.

All municipal records about the property, including any permit department or code enforcement actions, will not be released at the request of the State Fire Marshal’s Office because they are part of the official investigation, the city’s spokeswoman, Jessica Grondin, said Sunday.

“I don’t want to jeopardize their investigation,” she said.

Portland fire officials said their inspection records, which would show whether they had responded to calls for service at that address or done an inspection, were not online and were not available over the weekend.

Suslovic said neighbors had complained to him mostly about trash and noise issues.

“There’s been nothing extreme, but I would describe it as a nuisance property for several years now,” he said Sunday. “I’ve never been in the house, just on the sidewalk, and the porch was at times loaded with old mattresses and couches, a typical student-ghetto type house.”

Suslovic said he knows Nisbet personally, but never contacted him directly about the complaints and instead passed them on to city officials.

Schiller said a code enforcement officer did call her to follow up on her complaint, saying he had spoken to Nisbet. Soon after that she noticed several improvements, including some tenants moving out, and a van that someone had been living in being moved off the property.

Schiller said Sunday that she had never been inside the building, and her complaints had been about the noise and trash.

“It was like when people turned over, they would just leave their things there, just accumulated on the porch,” she said. “We saw them throwing cigarette butts off the porch and beer bottles.”

Several people who said they were tenants of Nisbet gave differing accounts of what it’s like living at one of his properties.

Nathan Long, who escaped Saturday’s fire by jumping out of the window, said Sunday that Nisbet is a good guy. He had the furnace inspected regularly and was friendly and responsive.

“He was always a good landlord,” said Long, who lived in the house for 18 months. “If you did not have all your money on the first of the month, he would say, ‘We will make it work.’ ”

A four-year tenant across the street at another one of Nisbet’s properties – another two-unit building – said she has had nothing but good experiences with him.

“He goes through a lot of (expletive) with kids messing up his buildings,” Scarlett McEachern said Saturday. “He’s not a bad landlord. I really hope people don’t take it out on him.”

McEachern, who occasionally works for Nisbet by cleaning apartments between tenants, said he is lenient on rent payments and often will work with tenants who cannot pay on time. His tenants tend to skew toward college-age students, she said.

But some tenants and former tenants were more critical, mostly about Nisbet allegedly failing to maintain the properties.

At a duplex at 186 Dartmouth St., tenant Roxanne White said Nisbet has resisted requests to do maintenance work, and despite being up to date on rent they do not have any heat in their apartment because of issues in the attached unit.

“We reported the conditions to (Nisbet) and he said (he won’t do the work) until all the rent is paid on both sides of the building,” White said in an interview Saturday.

A woman who said she used to live at the six-bedroom 20 Noyes St. apartment recalled moving out in 2011 because of persistent problems with plumbing and heating. There was a smelly oil leak in the basement, an upstairs toilet couldn’t be used for weeks because of a leak and the kitchen sink faucet broke off and was unusable, she said.

“(We) called him for like a month,” said Shanna Fratini, 26, who lives in Portland and works at Applebee’s. “I ended up just moving out. I couldn’t deal with it. Things were all so broken.”

She said she’s been back in the house since she moved out, and knew some of the people killed in the fire. As of last fall, the oil leak in the basement was still a problem, she said, although the other problems had been fixed.

But she said the fire reminded her of other problems that she never asked Nisbet to address, such as broken fire detectors in her room and in the doorway going to the third floor, and that the windows in one of the third-floor bedrooms opened only halfway. The property is listed in city records as having a full finished attic.

The president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association said Nisbet is “a good guy.”

“We’ve worked together as Realtors,” Brit Vitalius said Sunday. “He’s been around a long time and he’s a respected broker.”

Vitalius said he would assume Nisbet was a good landlord, particularly since he lived down the street and owned a real estate business. Vitalius said he recently sold a house “a couple of doors” away from 20-24 Noyes St. and didn’t notice any problems with the property.

Carleton Winslow, a board member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said he went to the fire scene over the weekend.

“I will tell you from a landlord’s point of view that I don’t know how many times I find smoke detectors disconnected from electrical systems,” said Winslow, who is also vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association. “Tenants disconnect smoke alarms all the time.”

Winslow, who owns eight rental properties in Portland, said he makes new tenants sign a document spelling out how many smoke detectors are in the unit, and that it’s a crime to disconnect them and that they have to let him know if one is not functioning.

“That’s just a protection for me,” Winslow said.

Suslovic said the city of Portland has previously debated whether to require regular inspections for all rental properties, but he did not support the idea because most properties are well-maintained, and he instead would support a voluntary inspection process. If a tenant or property owner refused to take part in a voluntary inspection, he said, it might trigger a formal inspection.

“This points up to an issue that we don’t have enough code enforcement officers to inspect every rental property,” Suslovic said. “We are largely a complaint-driven system.”

Brennan said city officials would review the inspection policies.

“When tragedies of this nature occur, we need to step back and assess the situation and say is there something we can learn here or do differently going forward? Can we do something that would prevent a tragedy like this going forward?” he said Sunday. “Our first responsibility is to ensure the safety of Portlanders. I want to make sure we’re following state code, federal code and established guidelines. There’s nothing to indicate we aren’t.”

Staff writers Matt Byrne, Joe Lawlor and Beth Quimby contributed to this report.


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