Portland officials have condemned an apartment building in East Bayside because of frequent police visits, forcing the landlord to evict all of his tenants until he fulfills his court-ordered obligations to tighten up management of the property.

It’s the first time the city has taken such an extreme measure to get a landlord to address issues under its disorderly houses ordinance – a designation that’s given to a building based on the number of police visits in a 30-day period.

While other apartment buildings have been deemed disorderly, the vast majority of landlords work with the city to address issues, said Richard Bianculli Jr., Portland’s Neighborhood Prosecutor. The landlord in this case is well known to city officials and has defied the order, officials said.

“It’s just been kind of a nightmare,” Bianculli said. “It’s really a safety issue. There’s too many calls for service and too many random things going on that are impacting people in that neighborhood.”

The city posted the three-family unit at 31 East Oxford St. against occupancy on May 31, after the building owner and landlord, Clark Stephens, who owns three apartment buildings totaling 11 units in Portland, allegedly failed to follow through on an April consent agreement to turn over management of the property to a professional firm. He was also ordered to evict the current tenants, perform background checks on any new tenants and maintain the property so it complies with the city codes, among other things.

Clark Stephens

After the posting, tenants had until June 14 to leave, but Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to low-income people, received a temporary restraining order against the city to prevent the evictions of three tenants until a court hearing next month.

Attorney Katie McGovern said the restraining orders are intended to give her three clients more time to find another apartment, which is becoming increasingly difficult for low-income tenants in Portland. Although the living conditions in the building are poor, McGovern said her clients would rather remain there temporarily than become homeless.

“We agree the housing should be made safe and the landlord should be held accountable,” McGovern said. “But we disagree the eviction of these vulnerable low-income people is the answer.”

Additional court hearings are expected in early July.

The situation underscores the difficulty city officials and tenants face in trying to deal with an unresponsive landlord in a rental market where vacancy rates are low, rents are rising and low-income housing is growing more scarce.

Stephens also owns 32-34 East Oxford St. Both properties are well-known to police and city inspectors, who have responded to complaints about matters ranging from life safety and excess trash buildup to basic livability issues, including bedbugs, a lack of heat and water, and a leaky roof. Stephens also owns 198 Spring St. in the city’s West End.

Stephens, who has a criminal record dating back to 1993 for theft, unemployment fraud and cruelty to animals, did not respond to requests for comment.

A man later identified as Stephens using a police mug shot from a 2016 arrest in Scarborough approached a reporter and photographer last week on East Oxford Street and began asking questions about who alerted the newspaper about problems at the building, asking whether it was Pine Tree Legal or the city.

Stephens did not identify himself, other than to say he lives in the West End. He said he knew nothing about the 31 East Oxford St. building, nor the landlord, before entering 32-34 East Oxford St., which is listed as his official address in court records.

One of the tenants caught in the middle of the dispute over the disorderly house is Margaret Peters, 55, who has a housing voucher through Shalom House, a nonprofit that works with people with mental illness. Peters also was one of the tenants who was kicked out of an apartment complex at 65 Grant St. last year so a different landlord could renovate the property.

Peters has struggled with homelessness in the past and said she decided to rent a room on the third floor of 31 East Oxford St. because it was her only option. For the last year, she said she has had to deal with random people drinking, doing drugs and fighting in the hallways of the apartment building.

“It is nasty. Everything is falling apart. But we had no other place to go,” Peters said of herself and her boyfriend.

Stephens tried to evict Peters and other tenants as required by the court order, but McGovern said she defeated those eviction notices, known as Forcible Entry and Detainer, in court. However, Stephens allegedly continued to try to collect rent from tenants even after he turned over management of his property to Mainely Property Management, prompting the company to part ways with Stephens.

“Our company has experienced an unusual amount of difficulty with the transition to management,” the company said in a letter to residents. “From the start, management has struggled to obtain accurate records, communicate with tenants, and collect rents. With so many factual discrepancies and lack of accurate financial records, we have decided to terminate this contract (effective) immediately.”

People who live and visit friends in the neighborhood say they are glad that the city is taking action.

Bob Taylor has lived nearby on Anderson Street for 11 years. The 59-year-old said the apartment building is a magnet for troublemakers, especially drug dealers and people looking for drugs. He said he’s witnessed people whistling in the neighborhood to call out the dealers and dealers have hung tennis shoes on the telephone lines – a sign, he said, that drugs are available. One time, he witnessed someone running up Anderson Street with a firearm, he said.

“That’s where they hang out at night and sell it,” Taylor said. “It’s a crack station. It’s a one-day pit stop.”

Corinne Tompkins said she visits her friend in the neighborhood regularly. From his apartment window last year, the 29-year-old said she saw a “straight-up gang war” in the street, adding that it was “guns versus two-by-fours.” She said there always seems to be new people hanging around the building.

“This is a nutty intersection,” Tompkins said of East Oxford and Anderson streets. “I don’t like being around here alone.”

Portland first adopted its disorderly housing ordinance back in 1998, but it has been amended over the years, most recently in 2011. It classifies a building with five or fewer apartments as a disorderly house if police have responded to at least three substantiated calls for service for general disturbances or any incident that involves an arrest or suspicion of criminal activity within a 30-day period. That threshold increases to four service calls for buildings with six to 10 units and five calls for 11 units or more.

A May 11 letter from the city to Stephens outlines four calls for service in April, including people refusing to leave, drug possession and suspicious activity, at 31 East Oxford St. and seven calls for service at 32 East Oxford St.

City officials were not able to provide the Portland Press Herald with a complete list of service calls to all of his properties, but Bianculli said that one – if not both – of Stephens’ East Bayside properties have been designated as a disorderly house since last August. City officials say they typically avoid condemning buildings so that innocent tenants don’t get evicted.

“Not only does it not get this far, but we don’t normally give people so many chances before we pursue a court action,” he said. “It’s at a point where I just don’t know what else to do.”

McGovern, the attorney that represents low-income tenants, believes the city’s ordinance is fundamentally flawed and the city is too quick to pressure landlords to evict tenants. She noted that the ordinance gives the landlord the right to appeal a disorderly designation, but not tenants, which she contends is a constitutional violation.

“The way the city’s disorderly process is set up there is no opportunity for the tenant to be heard, which we think is a deprivation of rights,” she said. “We think the tenants have the right to be heard in that process.”

However, Bianculli pushed back against that notion, noting that the situation on East Oxford Street is unprecedented, and the evictions were needed to protect the tenants.

“We’ve never had someone sign (a) consent decree and court order and then turn around and violate the court order the next week,” he said. “We only (condemned the building) because if something happens to one of these tenants, that’s going to be the news story.”

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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