Group targets substandard housing

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The same group of residents who banded together to win passage of a Disorderly Housing Ordinance for Bridgton are now targeting the problem of substandard housing and dangerous buildings.

The Bridgton Community Crime Watch Committee met May 16 to begin working on a new ordinance that would give local municipal officials more power to go after property owners who habitually violate state laws governing building standards and landlord-tenant rules.

In so doing, they have the strong support of at least two selectmen — Bernie King and Woody Woodward — as well as Planning Board member Ken Murphy and Health Officer Faye Daley. King, Murphy and Daley attended the meeting, and Woodward e-mailed words of support.

The crime watch group realized some time ago that the Disorderly Housing Ordinance, enacted in 2006, only addresses one half of the problem — and that disreputable property owners and landlords also need to be held accountable.

“I’m tired of seeing landlords get away with abusing and using people — people who are economically disadvantaged,” said BCCW member Paulina Dellosso at the meeting. “It seems our hands are tied because we don’t have a local ordinance.”

Crime Watch member Kenton Courtois said he’s frustrated that it appears what state laws do apply regarding building codes and dangerous buildings are not being enforced. “We file these complaints again and again and nothing happens, and we’re tired of it,” he said. He said he’s made many complaints about trash on the lawn and excessive noise at a rental property next door to his home on Fowler Street.

Two landlords, Nelson Henry and Anthony Numberg, were repeatedly cited by the 15 or so people attending as being the worst offenders. Henry owns five residential rental buildings, at 16 Walker Street and 37, 396, 447 and 533 Main Street. Numberg owns rental housing at 33 Wayside Avenue, 3 Fowler Street and 342 Main Street. Crime Watch members say most of these addresses are the source of constant complaints and police calls, as well as complaints of no heat and unsafe living conditions to Daley, the health officer.

“The slumlords know how to skirt the laws, and they prey on people who can’t afford to rent elsewhere,” said Dellosso. “It’s time to really, really hold (landlords) accountable.”

Numberg was unavailable for comment. Henry, reached by phone on Tuesday, said it has been difficult for him to maintain being an absentee landlord. He is a dentist and resident of Raymond whose work requires travel throughout the state.

“I’m just not around to fix every little thing,” Henry said. If and when he is informed of a major problem, he hires local contractors to perform repairs — but acknowledges he doesn’t always address minor issues.

“It’s hard to get a handyman for the little things,” Henry said. “Good help is hard to find.” And he points out that state law favors tenants in disputes, and that evicting a problem tenant is often a lengthy and expensive process.

“Sometimes, the occupant can paint a really bad picture” to officials about a property’s condition, in order to gain their own advantage, Henry said. When, he said, the problem is the result of tenant negligence and vandalism, “I want to get rid of the deadbeats” as much as anyone, Henry said.

Substandard residential housing isn’t the only problem, said Crime Watch member Kenton Courtois. Unaddressed code violations exist in older commercial buildings as well, he said, citing an incident in which he stepped through the floor as structural supports gave way inside a downtown store. King said selectmen rely on state law in addressing dangerous buildings, which requires the town to file a claim in Superior Court, and can be drawn out and costly. It took the town 2 ½ years to demolish an unsafe house on North High Street that had been gutted by fire. A local ordinance could assess fines without a court ruling until problems are addressed, he said.

Daley said she, along with Code Enforcement Officer Robbie Baker and Fire Chief Glen Garland, inspected a complaint of bed bugs at the six-unit apartment building at 396 Main Street around a month ago and found several safety violations. On the third floor, there was no fire escape; on the second floor, boxes and debris blocked egress in the hallway, according to Daley.

The oil tank at 396 Main ran dry during the winter of 2010-2011, and Daley said that despite repeated attempts, she was unable to reach Henry. The town put 100 gallons of oil in the tank and gave the tenants electric heaters, telling them to shut the doors and live in one room. She later found out Henry was vacationing in Mexico.

“I have tried and tried and tried, and I can never get him,” Daley said in a later phone interview. “I shouldn’t have to chase people down like this.”

Asked why he didn’t provide oil to the tenants at 396 Main Street, Henry said, “I probably just didn’t have enough money.”

King also said Baker has had no luck reaching Henry to get permission to inspect 16 Walker Street, which was declared uninhabitable by a judge during a 2010 eviction proceeding (see sidebar to this story).

Daley works part time and averages around five to six calls a month for such complaints as mold, raw sewage, foul well water, unsafe front steps and floors caving in — the latter especially common with older mobile homes. Mobile homes “do have a life, and a death — they just wear out,” she said.

If she finds something really dangerous, Daley said she’ll go to the town manager for further action. But most of the time, her options are limited, she said. “I usually tell them to move.” She’s aware that it’s not uncommon for tenants to lodge complaints about the same time their rent is due, so they won’t have to pay. “A lot of issues contribute to this,” she said of the substandard housing problem. “One of them is unemployment, and another is drugs. There’s a lot of tentacles to this thing.”

In his e-mail to the Crime Watch group, Woodward said he’s been concerned about substandard housing in Bridgton for many years.

“Many of the ‘kids’ I’ve hired in the past have told me horror stories of their apartments,” said Woodward. “When I asked why they didn’t report the violations to the town’s CEO, they said they didn’t know of any other places they could rent that were affordable.”

Woodward said he doesn’t want Bridgton to become a “center for slums,” but added, “I do realize that many younger and older folks in our community need clean, safe housing that’s available at a reasonable rental rate.”

Courtois has been researching model substandard housing and dangerous building ordinances around the country, and has found several that could serve as a model for Bridgton. Selectman King told the group they ought to get to work on it soon, if they wanted to have it considered by voters this November.

Ten members of the BCCW agreed to serve on a subcommittee to draft the ordinance for consideration by selectmen, and are currently working to inventory properties in town that may be considered substandard.

“This is way overdue,” said Murphy.

Added Nelle Ely, who said there are substandard housing issues near her home on Portland Road, “I know young people need housing, but that does not justify putting them in firetraps.”

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