LEWISTON — After just one meeting of a new housing committee looking at creating a rental registration program in the city, landlord Jay Allen quit.

Allen, whose Six Sigma Properties operates roughly 32 rental units in Lewiston, had previously spoken in favor of a registration program, which would charge multi-unit property owners annual fees to pay for more city code enforcement.

In May, when landlord opposition and mounting questions led the city to go back to the drawing board on the proposal, Allen was one of three landlords appointed to the temporary committee. He was the only one who’s been outspoken in favor of a registration program.

But, according to those who attended the committee’s first meeting last month, the emotional response from landlords in the audience spilled over, and Allen found himself in heated exchanges with Lewiston landlord Joe Dunn, among others. It nearly came to blows.

Allen said a number of landlords against the proposal, who “clearly came as a group,” took over the meeting and insulted him personally. He and Dunn continued their argument outside City Hall after the meeting.

Another landlord, Rick Breton, had to step between them.

“You can’t let a small group of landlords make all the policy in Lewiston,” Allen said recently. “If they’re not smart enough to understand the value of having buildings up to code, then they shouldn’t be in the real estate business.”

While proponents in Lewiston say the rental registration fees would hold landlords accountable and lead to safer housing through more inspections, opponents say the fee amounts to another tax that would unfairly affect responsible property owners.

A number of landlords, joined by Mayor Shane Bouchard, believe the program isn’t feasible in Lewiston, where they say the rental market already has landlords working within tight margins.

Bouchard is hoping the committee can come up with housing goals that can be met without a fee-based program.

Allen said the program is aimed at helping tenants, not landlords.

‘Strong feelings’

The confrontational nature of the first meeting highlights how contentious the issue is for Lewiston landlords, and how much work is in front of the committee.

In his initial proposal earlier this year, former director of Planning and Code Enforcement Gil Arsenault said a $36 rental registration fee charged to about 7,000 units would take in roughly $256,000, funding 2½ new code positions.

The idea is that more code positions could help the city conduct more regular building inspections. Landlords would pay the annual per-unit fee and submit contact information for a city database in case of emergency.

Rental registry programs have been used in many major cities. In 2014, Portland became the first in Maine to launch one after an apartment house fire killed six people. However, opponents in Lewiston are quick to point out that program’s well-documented growing pains, especially its difficulty in making sure landlords are paying the annual fee.

“It’s clear that there are some very strong feelings in the community around the housing issue, on all sides,” Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett said last week. “One of the things that’s difficult when you bring people together is to get past all the emotion and reaction that comes up.”

After the first meeting, Barrett said, new meeting guidelines were put in place. In the two meetings that have taken place since, public comment has been held until the end of the meeting.

He said city staff wasn’t surprised by the level of pushback from landlords during the initial workshop in May. At that point, elected officials made the decision to look at the issue at the committee level.

Now, the committee is looking at a range of housing issues — from lead and code inspections to a single landlord database — to help decide whether a rental registration program is needed. It will forward a recommendation to the full City Council.

According to the city, the Fire Department’s inspections are the “primary proactive element of the city’s life safety code enforcement efforts.”

In the past two years, the department has inspected about 190 buildings a year. At that rate, a complete round of inspections requires about 5½ years.

Among the topics in front of the committee is how often inspections should take place. Is every 5½ years enough?

However, Bouchard, who previously called a fee-based rental registration program “anti-business,” said he believes a landlord contact-info database can be accomplished without annual fees.

When he appointed the committee, Bouchard sent a memo to its members saying, “My expectation is that this committee will look at creative ways of achieving the program goals without further burdening Lewiston landlords with additional expenses. I believe we have some of these solutions already in place, however, they need to be better utilized.”

‘This is about the tenants’

Chris Aceto, a Lewiston landlord who had previously spoken against a registration program, also witnessed the immediate hostility when he arrived at the new committee’s first meeting.

He said landlords “butted heads,” but he added, “there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing.”

After Allen left the committee, Bouchard asked Aceto to take his place.

Like many other landlords, Aceto, who operates 68 units in Lewiston, has said the rental registration program provides no benefit to landlords.

He doesn’t believe, like Allen, that it will eventually lead to a rise in property values, and he said it only adds to the increased financial burden being placed on landlords as rents stay flat.

He said landlords in Lewiston are skeptical of city staff and officials after years of changing policies. He said city leaders are known among landlords “to go back on their word.”

On the other side, Allen, who also owns units in Portland, believes the city should act in the interest of tenants, rather than create policy based on a small number of landlords.

He said in the past, when the city has pursued stricter rules on nuisance building violations and other code enforcement, he’s been told by city staff that they were ultimately scrapped because “the landlords were against it.”

“Who cares if the landlords are against it?” he said. “This is about the tenants. If you can’t afford to keep up a building to code, you shouldn’t have tenants.”

Proponents during the workshop this spring pointed out that life-threatening fires in Lewiston in 2013 highlighted the need for more accountability from landlords. Following the fires, the city went through a record number of building demolitions that have since leveled off.

The city also routinely pursues what are known as 80K lawsuits against landlords, which can order violators to pay fines or correct a violation.

Allen said he knows that if a registration program were created, landlords would likely pass the added cost on to their tenants. But, he said, $36 a year “amounts to nothing” in the context of paying monthly rent.

After the first meeting, Allen said the mayor met with him, telling him that if he were to continue serving on the committee, “‘You’re going to have to put up with that stuff,'” referring to the reaction from Dunn and others.

Allen said he asked Bouchard point-blank if he thought a rental registration program would pass, to which Bouchard responded, “Probably not.”

“That just hit me so wrong,” Allen said.

Breton, who attended the first meeting to oppose the program, said he’s mostly retreated from Lewiston because of the growing costs for landlords. He said at one time he had more than 200 units in Lewiston, but he is down to 38. He mostly operates mobile home parks now.

He said between more code and fire inspections, state lead inspections, federal Section 8 program taxes, local trash pickup and rising property taxes, operating in Lewiston is “a losing battle.”

“At the end of the day, who wants to do it?” Breton asked.

Breton said at the first committee meeting, the discussion got “out of hand” between Allen and Dunn, to the point that Breton felt he had to step in.

“We’re trying to fix the problem, not create problems,” he said.

Reached by phone, Dunn said Allen threatened him outside City Hall in front of a number of people, including city officials. He said it came down to “a difference in opinion.”

“It was probably both our faults,” he said. “I told him that I was going to say what I please, and he almost jumped out of his shoes to get me.”

Dunn said he’s “100 percent” against the rental registry, arguing that the city is already “ahead of the curve” when it comes to housing inspections.

Changes on the way

Even if a fee-based registration program isn’t ultimately pursued, it seems likely that some changes will be recommended by the committee.

Creating a single database for landlord contact information — one of the core arguments in favor of registering rental units — has been advocated by people on both sides of the argument.

Bouchard said that on a combined city database, code and fire inspectors could see who owns a building and whether there have been violations. He said code enforcement, the Fire Department, assessing and utilities all have separate files on properties.

“The information-sharing piece is something very important and I think it can be accomplished very easily with technology we already have in-house,” he said.

Ronnie Paradis, chairwoman of the Lewiston-Auburn Public Health Committee, which has supported a registration program, said the new committee is “gathering a lot of information” in order to eventually make a list of recommendations to the council.

But while she was once in favor of a fee-based program, she said she’s now on the fence.

“It needs to be a partnership between landlords and tenants,” she said. “It’s not always the fault of the landlord.”

Breton and others, including Aceto, believe there ought to be accountability for tenants, as well.

Aceto said more inspections wouldn’t lead to wholesale improvements to buildings in the downtown because rental rates are tied to income levels. In Portland, where he also owns buildings, he said he never has to conduct “massive clean-outs of apartments,” large damage repairs, evictions, or bedbug treatments.

As for the friction during the process so far, Bouchard said it’s become “an emotionally charged issue because we’re dealing with people’s livelihoods.”

Bouchard said an annual fee isn’t going to “break the bank” for landlords, but he argues that costs to run an expanded code enforcement department would go up in just the second year of the program.

He said salaries for the new positions created from the fees would automatically increase in the second year, meaning the annual registration fee would have to be adjusted.

The committee includes two city councilors, code enforcement and fire inspectors, a police officer and local health officials. Its next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12.

Aceto, as the newest member, believes that despite the committee-level process, city staff and most councilors are leaning toward a rental registration program.

Lewiston’s comprehensive plan, known as Legacy Lewiston, calls for the creation of a registration program. That’s why the landlords against the proposal felt they had to speak out, he said.

“It’s far more challenging to be a landlord in Lewiston than it is in Portland,” Aceto said.

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