LEWISTON — Landlords and property management workers went into a defensive mode Monday, taking steps to ensure their downtown buildings weren't the next to go up in flames.
After a Bartlett Street fire broke out early Monday morning — the third large downtown fire in one week — landlords and property management workers went from building to building “to remove things off porches, get the yards cleaned up,” said Kristina Bennett of Great Falls Property Management. Great Falls manages 400 apartments, including a lot of downtown property.
A citywide movement started Monday to make sure garages were secure and debris was cleaned from porches and yards. The goal was to remove anything that could become fuel for a fire.
“It's very interesting for us as landlords,” Bennett said. “The issue last month was people stripping copper,” she said. Copper was stolen from basements and some doors ripped off — even in occupied buildings.
Now, landlords are dealing with a bigger issue of securing the outsides of buildings to ensure they aren't burned down.
Bennett's company met with city officials Monday to put together a fire prevention plan. “We're trying to figure what we can do to help,” she said.
In addition to finding apartments for those displaced, Great Falls was looking into getting more security camera surveillance outside doors, on garages and porches. Meanwhile police boarded up vacant buildings.
As a large customer of Home Depot, Great Falls receives a discount and plans to pass on that discount to smaller landlords to help make buildings more secure with more locks, Bennett said.
Candis Henson of Preferred Property Management, who also manages downtown property on Bates, Bartlett and Oak streets, said her company is also taking preventative steps.
Usually home inspections are done twice a year, but "we're stepping that up. The biggest thing is making sure there's a primary and secondary point of egress." With three fires in a week, "people are nervous," she said.
Donald Poisson, president of the L-A Landlords Association, agreed. "After the first fire, nobody was too concerned,” Poisson said. "Now with three," he said, not finishing his sentence. Members will meet Tuesday to talk about the fires, Poisson said.
Lewiston has a lot of abandoned buildings that need to come down, but it takes time and money for the city to make that happen, he said.
Henson praised code enforcement workers, saying they're "doing a great job with what they have. They have a lot going on.”
Apartment building owners abandon the property after they stop receiving rent, she said. “A lot of times owners have tenants in there who aren't paying. Owners still have to pay all the bills,” Henson said.
Great Falls Property Management started managing the Blake Street apartment building, which was destroyed by fire April 29, for the bank in March when the building was condemned.
When Great Falls started managing the property, "it was full of people," Bennett said. "Nobody was paying rent." Her company tried to relocate as many tenants as it could. "We had the eviction process going." It's not easy for landlords to evict, she said. “Pine Tree Legal is involved with tenants."
It was legal for people to live there, even though they stopped paying rent and the building was condemned, she said. "Apparently there was no court order by the city,” Bennett said.
Great Falls had gathered estimates of the work needed to be done to improve the building and lift it from its condemned status so the bank could get rent income.
A new roof was about to go on, “all new kitchens were going in,” Bennett said. But some of the work couldn't be done with tenants still there.