2017-03-02 / Front Page

Landlords make rental units safer, per city

By Garrick Hoffman
Staff Writer

Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV co-owner Sue Sexton on the porch of her and her husband’s apartment building at 10 Foss Street in Biddeford. Sexton urges landlords to “do the right thing” by providing livable spaces for their tenants. (Garrick Hoffman photo) Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV co-owner Sue Sexton on the porch of her and her husband’s apartment building at 10 Foss Street in Biddeford. Sexton urges landlords to “do the right thing” by providing livable spaces for their tenants. (Garrick Hoffman photo) BIDDEFORD – After completing changes to their apartment building required by codes enforcement, Grady and Sue Sexton, owners of Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV and landlords of a four-unit apartment building in downtown Biddeford, have said their experience with the department was positive, and they urge other landlords to take similar measures.

“(We) take pride in property that houses young working tenants, and want to provide a nice, safe and clean space,” Sue Sexton said. “I always tell my tenants prior to showing, ‘If I would not live here, I would not rent it to you.’”

In 2016, the Biddeford City Council decided it wanted all apartment buildings in the city inspected in response to the deadly Portland and Biddeford fires in 2014 that killed eight people. This includes approximately 650 parcels, or about 3,600 rental units, according to Roby Fecteau, director of code enforcement and emergency management.

The department is staffed by two life safety inspectors and one electrical inspector, one of whom was hired in response to the city council decision. Inspections started on Main Street and have since spanned out to other parts of the city. About 20 apartments are inspected every week, with a week to catch up to reports, Fecteau said. Since April 2016, the department has conducted more than 200 inspections. The series of inspections is expected to take four or five years.

A new system was implemented, funded by the city council, that enables the codes department to use tablets to check off code violations, print the reports in their vehicles and give the reports to property owners immediately following inspection. With a budget of $20,000, the system cost $11,567, which includes tablet hardware, vehicle hardware, training, setting up, and paper for printing, Fecteau said. He estimates another $2,500 for training and set up.

“The thing to remember – the quote that really should be said – is this office is willing to work with anybody who’s willing to work with us,” Fecteau said. “We’ve gone out and allowed people four, five, six, seven years (to complete repairs). As long as they develop a communication and a real plan with us, it’s acceptable to both parties. It’s not something where we go to you and say, listen, you got to replace all the doors in one year. That’s not how we operate. We want to make sure we have a cooperation between the city and the property owner to make sure things get done in a timely manner.”

Some repairs are more time sensitive, Fecteau said.

“Safety’s priority. Something like missing smoke detectors – that stuff we can’t let go too long. It absolutely has to be done. Some of the minor stuff like the railings and dry wall systems can give them some time to do, as long as we have a working relationship.”

Code enforcement sent a letter to the Sextons in December 2016 following a Dec. 1 inspection that included a list of five repairs that needed to be done. Codes gave them 30 days to complete the repairs, and if they didn’t complete the repairs, the Sextons would be sent a certified letter to urge the them to contact the department.

There was a ground fault with electrical outlets by the kitchen counters, which are required to be protected - previously unbeknownst to the Sextons – but weren’t. There were blank spots in an electrical panel in which someone could stick their fingers, and these needed to be filled. Bedroom door locks needed to be removed because doors that lead to a room with a fire escape cannot be lockable in case of an emergency. There was paint on some ground fault interrupters, a type of outlet that monitors electricity flowing in a circuit and protects people from electrical shock. The paint can counter its electrical shock prevention mechanism.

Finally, CO2 and carbon monoxide detectors needed to be updated by enabling them to communicate with detectors throughout the building. This is to allow residents in all other units to be alerted in case of a fire – a necessary but “inconvenient safety measure,” Sue Sexton said, because if a tenant cooks and sets their detector off, it will alert all other tenants in the building.

The Sextons completed all five required modifications in one day. They estimated costs to be $2,500, but were un- certain since they had not received a bill by the time of the interview.

“The hardest part was finding someone who could squeeze us in,” Sue Sexton said, since contractors can be busy. She said it took eight weeks to schedule an appointment with an electrician because three attempts with three different contractors to schedule the repairs were unsuccessful. As a result, 30 days had expired from the time the first letter was sent, and the Sextons were sent a certified letter from codes enforcement to urge them to contact the department, with no time frame given to make the repairs after the first 30 days.

Sue Sexton said the code department “could not have been nicer, and made the experience easier to deal with. They didn’t have an attitude, they were very professional, very willing to talk and listen to our concerns, and were very flexible.”

Sue Sexton said communication between tenants and landlords is paramount, considering the Noyes Street fire in Portland that killed six adults in 2014, as well as a fire in Biddeford that claimed the lives of two men in 2015.

“The tenant has a duty to let the landlord know when there is a problem as soon as it is noticed,” Sue Sexton said. “It is also the tenant’s responsibility to keep pathways to escape routes – or doorways - free and clear of debris. The landlord has a duty to make the repairs as soon as possible.”

The Sextons implore landlords to act ethically and professionally for the sake of their tenants.

“If you’re a landlord, do the right thing,” she said. “Get your property up to snuff and provide a decent place for people to live. If they’re going to give you good money for rent, you want to give them a good place to live.”

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