PORTLAND, Maine — City landlords will begin paying an annual registration fee of as much as $35 per housing unit on Jan. 1, 2016.
But discounts to the fee, part of an ordinance requiring landlords to register with the new Housing Safety Office, are expected to have a first reading at the Sept. 21 City Council meeting, and a public hearing and vote on Oct. 5, Councilor Ed Suslovic said Sept. 9.
On Sept. 8, the Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee, chaired by Suslovic, recommended passage of the fee schedule by a 3-1 vote, with Councilor Jill Duson opposed.
“There are no complete exemptions, every rental unit of residential housing in the city will be paying a minimum of $15,” Suslovic said.
The fees will cover at least 18,000 rental units in the city, including those managed by Avesta Housing and Community Housing of Portland, but not including 1,000 Portland Housing Authority units.
The rental units operated by PHA will get discounts based on annual inspections by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A committee memo estimates there are 3,500 rental units inspected by the federal government as part of subsidized housing programs.
PHA Executive Director Mark Adelson on Sept. 9 said the fees could cost the agency as much as $20,000 annually.
“As difficult as it will be to find the additional funds to pay the fees for our units, the ordinance and staff for enforcement are badly needed, and safe housing has to be the priority,” Adelson said.
Other discounts include $10 for each unit in a fully sprinklered building, $7.50 for each unit in a building with a centrally monitored fire alarm, and $2.50 for each unit where the lease prohibits smoking.
“I am thrilled with the outcome, because it does incentivize and reward the landlords doing the right things when it comes to safety,” Suslovic said.
Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, also praised the fee schedule and work it took to create it.
“I can say the association has been included in the process the whole way through and generally supports the new ordinance and fees, and discount, as they are proposed,” he said Sept. 9.
“The process for creating the ordinance and fee structure was inclusive, fair and went very smoothly,” he said. “Everyone who participated had a common goal throughout the process, and that’s the safety of Portland renters.”
But Vitalius also sounded a note of caution about the new procedure.
“We want to be sure we are still involved, as it is all about the implementation,” he said. “We want to be sure it is spent as intended.”
The annual registration fees are expected to generate more than $416,000 for the city this budget year, and will pay for staffing and operations at the new Housing Safety Office created July 6 by the City Council.
Included in the definition of rental units are “any portion of a single-family home, condominium, or apartment that is rented to or available to be rented to an individual or individuals who are not the owner or owners.”
The Housing Safety Office, to be staffed by five people, including three inspectors, was a key recommendation of the Fire Safety Task Force created by former acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian after the the Nov. 1, 2014, fire that killed six people at 20-24 Noyes St.
Inspections of city residential rental properties were generally prompted by tenant complaints before the fire, and the number of inspectors had been reduced over the last decade because of budget cuts.
The full report on the fire from the state Fire Marshal’s Office has not been released because of landlord Gregory Nisbet’s indictment in Cumberland County on manslaughter charges. The indictment cited Nisbet for four code violations, including a lack of working smoke detectors, blocked access to a stairway, and a lack of secondary access to third-floor rented bedrooms where two victims died.