AUGUSTA — City officials say the housing shortage is so dire that some tenants are continuing to live in rental housing so unsafe — cobbled-together illegal electrical systems, no smoke detectors and leaky roofs — because they can’t find anywhere else to live and they thus don’t dare report dangerous conditions to authorities.

The hazardous conditions the city’s code enforcement officers and firefighters encounter would have, just a few years ago, prompted authorities to close down entire apartment buildings until landlords addressed the safety code violations that put the lives of their tenants and anyone else at risk. The city, then, would put the tenants up in hotel rooms until longer-term housing could be found for them.

Director of Code Enforcement Rob Overton told city councilors Thursday that officials aren’t closing down buildings even when unsafe conditions are found because they fear tenants won’t be able to find any other place to live in the extremely tight, overpriced housing market. Tenants could end up on the streets, where they’d potentially face even more hazards, he said.

Overton described a Riverside Drive three-unit apartment building that was only authorized by the city as a two-unit rental. At some point the owner allegedly added a third unauthorized apartment. And, because Central Maine Power wouldn’t hook up a new electrical meter for that apartment without the city signing off on it, the landlord “got creative and wired it themselves,” creating a loop whereby electricity fed into one meter was also feeding the newly-created unit, with electricity entering from two sides into the meter. He said the electrical system of that building was so dangerously compromised that when Fire Chief David Groder turned a kitchen stove burner on, the lights in the bathroom got brighter, and dimmed when he turned it off.

Overton said the city had CMP disconnect the electricity in the building but the tenants, who said they were aware of the problem but couldn’t get their landlord to fix it, had nowhere else to go. They ended up staying in the building with no electricity for weeks.

“That’s the situation we’re in because we don’t have anywhere else where the tenants can go,” Overton said. “The best we can do is get the power shut off so there’s no risk of fire. But then individuals have to live in a house without power.”


Part of the problem is most tenants, with housing so hard to find, aren’t calling the city to report hazardous living conditions in their apartments, even when they report them to their landlords and the landlords ignore them, according to Overton.

Currently in the city, rental housing is only required to undergo an inspection when the tenant is receiving assistance, such as from the Augusta Housing Authority or the general assistance funds. Once they are operating, market rate apartments are not required to undergo regular inspections to ensure they meet safety codes.

Since many problems go unreported by tenants, one of the only ways city officials learn of safety code violations in apartment buildings is when ambulance crews, firefighters or police enter a building and see an issue, and then alert the city’s codes office.

Matt Nazar, the city’s development director, said it’s a worsening problem. To address that, he, Groder and Overton are proposing the city create a rental housing licensing system that would require apartments in the city to be inspected. It could be similar to a residential rental licensing system implemented in the city of Portland, after a fire at a Noyes Street apartment building took the lives of six people in 2014, in which investigators said the building’s smoke alarms weren’t working and tenants of upstairs units had no way to get out.

“Without the ability to get into the apartments and make sure they come up to minimum code we potentially could be losing lives,” Groder warned. “If we can get into every apartment building and make sure they at least have a smoke detector in them, that gives people a chance to get out. Right now, I can’t tell you where we have smoke detectors and where we don’t.”

Nazar said about half the residential housing supply in Augusta is made up of rental housing, and there are also around 800 hotel and motel rooms in the city. Overton said some hotels in Augusta have also had safety code problems.


Nazar and Overton said there is no way the city’s already overworked code enforcement officers could take on the additional inspections a licensing system would require. But they said fees charged for the program could cover most or all of the additional cost of adding staff.

Nazar said the system could reduce fees as an incentive for landlords who show they comply with city codes, have smoke detectors, sprinkler systems or other safety measures in place. He suggested the system be written to allow officials to focus on the problems they consider to be the most severe first.

City councilors expressed strong support for the idea and agreed that city staff should create a rental housing inspection system and bring it back to them to review as soon as possible.

“This is long overdue,” Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti said, “and I think it’s wonderful and I’ll sponsor it and I am 100% behind you.”

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