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Augusta launches debate over how best to improve conditions in the city's housing stock

A view from a the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine.
Terry Ross
via flickr
A view from a the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine.

A proposed rental ordinance in Augusta is sparking debate over how best to improve unsafe conditions in the city's housing stock.

A draft measure would require landlords to pay an annual registration fee of $100 per rental unit to cover the costs of hiring more code enforcement officials and more frequent inspections.

Augusta Fire Chief Dave Groder said his crews have encountered some homes that are dangerous to enter.

"We've had decks collapse on our members as we're removing people from apartment buildings," he said late last week at an informational meeting on the proposal. [There have been issues with] egress, meaning the decks have so much trash on them that we can't get patients in and out."

But many landlords said the fees are too high, and they would likely raise their rents or sell their properties if forced to pay them.

"This is going to discourage investment rather than encourage it, right at the time Augusta, as most communities in the state, needs more investment in housing," said Dan Bernier, a Waterville attorney who represents the Capital Area Housing Association.

Under the city's draft proposal, landlords would pay a lower registration fee for the units that meet Augusta's safety codes for the following year and subsequent years as long as they're in compliance.

But several landlords and property managers also said they fear an annual inspection process could force the city's most vulnerable out of their homes.

After hearing hours of mostly negative feedback on the proposal, city officials and councilors said they may form a separate task force to discuss how to incentivize improvements in Augusta's housing stock and address safety concerns.