Low-income tenants at this housing complex in Portland, who were surprised and devastated to get eviction notices last month, should never have received the letters, a representative for the property owner said late Tuesday. Credit: Callie Ferguson

Low-income tenants at a housing complex in Portland who were surprised and devastated to get eviction notices last month should never have received the letters, a representative for the property owner said late Tuesday.

As a result, at least 16 low-income tenants will not be forced to move by Dec. 31, as the notices had stated. But, if rents go up after planned property renovations at the 240 Harvard St. complex, some tenants may still have to move, said Bill Steinberg, director of acquisitions and asset management for Chestnut Realty Management, the company that manages a portfolio of properties owned by members of a philanthropic Massachusetts family who were behind the purchase of the Portland complex last month.

The explanation came about 10 hours after the Bangor Daily News reported on the sweeping eviction. At least 16 tenants on rental assistance were told the new owner intended to renovate the property and had decided to no longer accept the vouchers they used to pay their rent, according to several Oct. 18 letters and confirmed by the the Portland Housing Authority, which administers the vouchers.

The letters were a mistake and should never have been sent, according to Steinberg, who learned about them through the BDN’s reporting.

The letters were written and signed by a lawyer, David J. Van Baars of Windham, who was not directly hired by Steinberg’s firm. Rather, Steinberg’s firm subcontracted with a local property management company, CRM Apartments, to look after the Portland property, and CRM hired the lawyer, Steinberg said.

Van Baars will probably “never do anything for us again,” Steinberg said. He isn’t sure what inspired the lawyer’s errors, he said.

On Wednesday morning, the lawyer said he had been retained by the property management company and “asked to prepare specific notices to be given to various tenants at this property.”

“If there was a lack of communication between the owner and its management company about the owner’s intentions, I was not aware of it at the time I prepared the notices. I do not make decisions for my clients, and did not do so in this instance. I provide advice and act in accordance with their direction,” Van Baars said.

“Well, he sent everyone into a tizzy here,” said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, which has been working with the 16 tenants to find new housing.

The clarification is “good news,” he said, but the new owners still need to inform tenants of the error and let them know they don’t immediately have to leave, he said.

The sale of the property still leaves some lingering questions about how the planned renovations will affect tenants, he added, suggesting they should hold a meeting with tenants to communicate their plans as soon as possible.

Steinberg said that tenants should expect to receive a new letter soon.

The forthcoming letter should reflect a notice that Steinberg wrote last month and believed had been sent to tenants already. It would have informed them of the new owner’s plan to address a series of code violations that were found at the property, and complete renovations that will focus on the windows and clearing out mold in the basement, he said.

He toured the property last week with city code inspectors — and came away confused by one encounter that makes sense to him now.

“When we did the tour there [last week], there was one woman” — a tenant — “who was very angry, and she said that we were kicking people out,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘My letter didn’t deal with that at all,’” he said.

The coming renovations won’t be so major that tenants will have to move, but they could lead to rent increases, Steinberg said.

Some residents could have to move if they can no longer afford to live there, meaning it’s still possible that the change in ownership could force tenants to look for new housing.

“Our goal isn’t to throw tenants out, it’s to work with people and help people,” Steinberg said, noting the property is in need of repairs to bring it into compliance with city housing standards.

“We feel badly that they received a letter that wasn’t intended and it’s put [tenants] through a difficult period of time,” he said.

Steinberg’s company oversees the private real estate investments of a prominent Springfield, Massachusetts, family known for its private foundation that focuses on childhood education. Family members Andrew M. Davis, Stephen A. Davis and John H. Davis added the eight-building Portland apartment complex to their private real estate portfolio for nearly $10.8 million in early October, Steinberg said.

Davis family members were also unaware of the erroneous letter because they aren’t involved in the day-to-day management of their real estate holdings, Steinberg said.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.