NORWAY — A confrontation between a Section 8 tenant and her landlord got physical on Friday, when the 63-year-old tenant claimed that the landlord hit her with her own front door as he tried to force his way into her apartment.
Darlene Paine, who lives on 4 Hazen St., was featured in a recent article about the living conditions in her apartment, which had only intermittent heat over an 11-day period.
On Friday, Jan. 6, she said that she woke to find that her apartment once again lacked heat. After talking with the building manager, Paine's upstairs neighbors, Everett and Justine Gray, added oil to the tank.
"We started the furnace up at about 2 p.m.," Justine Gray said.
Paine and her landlord, Vincent Marcisso, agree that he came to the building in the evening to respond to Paine's earlier complaint about a lack of heat. When he saw that the furnace was working, Paine said that he pounded on her door and accused her of trying to "start" something.
According to a police report on the incident filed by Norway Police officer Stephen Witham, Paine said Marcisso "shoved the door open, hitting her with the door."
Paine's friend, Ruby Hall, said that she could see the impact of the force on Paine.
"I didn't see where he put his hands on her but I know he had to have because Darlene was flying backwards," Hall said. ". . . It wasn't like stepping backwards. It was falling backward."
According to Paine and Hall, Marcisso retreated almost immediately, as Hall's son, Chris, came to her aid.
According to Marcisso, Paine has been living in the apartment without paying any rent for the last three months. She has said that she is moving into a new apartment with a different landlord this weekend, but he expressed doubt that she was actually moving.
Paine said that Marcisso wanted to get into her apartment to see whether she had packed her belongings.
Deb Turcotte, a spokesperson for Maine State Housing Authority, which administers the Section 8 program, confirmed that the organization inspected a new apartment for Paine on Monday, which should allow her to move.
The police report contains seemingly contradictory statements from Marcisso about whether he entered her apartment.
"He . . . said that while he was in her apartment, he could see that nothing had been packed . . .," states one part of the report. A few lines later, Witham wrote, "I asked him what happened when he entered the apartment and he said he never crossed the threshold and never went into the apartment."
No charges were filed in the incident, and Paine declined to file a written statement.
Witham reported that he told Marcisso not to have any contact with Paine "except on a professional landlord/tenant level."
"He told me, unless you have a fire or a flood, do not open the door to him," Paine said.
Matt Dyer is an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Services, an organization that advocates on behalf of low-income residents.
Dyer said that landlords who can't provide regular heat to their tenants are becoming increasingly common in the wake of rising oil prices.
"Eventually, the landlords tend to head into bankruptcy and leave everyone high and dry," he said. "I've had at least two instances of that in the past year."
But Dyer said that tenants do have a recourse against their landlords.
Under state law, landlords who are responsible for the heating of a unit are required to maintain a minimum temperature of 68 degrees for their tenants.
"Tenants can sue the landlord and ask the court to lower the rent, and/or to order the landlord to keep the oil tanks filled," he said. In cases where the landlord can't afford to keep the heat on, Dyer said, "the best remedy is probably what the tenants in this building are doing: paying for the oil and deducting it from rent."
Dyer also said that towns have the power to intervene in these situations under a new statutory provision governing rental properties in the state of Maine.
Under the law, in cases in which an "imminent threat to habitability of leased premises exists," towns must first attempt to contact the landlord. Then, the town can provide whatever basic necessities are lacking, such as heat, and then place a lien against the landlord to recoup its expenses.
Dyer said that he was not aware of any municipalities that have taken this action, but that it would be legal.