LEWISTON — The call for Lewiston’s Fire Department on Wednesday morning should have been relatively routine.

A furnace was malfunctioning at 37 Jefferson St. and emitting fumes and smoke into the building, according to the call from a resident.

There was no fire when firefighters arrived minutes later and as they do in most of these situations, they made sure the building’s owners were contacted, that residents were not in danger and that the furnace was turned off until it could be repaired.

But what crews also discovered Wednesday when they entered the building’s basement was what one firefighter described in his radio communications as “a lifetime of code violations.”

Stored in the proximity to the natural gas-fired boiler were seven partially empty barbecue propane tanks, along with another seven plastic and metal 5-gallon cans for gasoline. While some of the cans were empty, others had remnants of fuel in them.

The building is one of 16 that is part of Sultan, a limited liability corporation owned and operated by Joe Dunne. The city’s code enforcement officers have issued notices to Dunne on 22 code violations on buildings in the corporation — not including the Wednesday incident — since January 2014.

Sultan is among the top 10 in the city when it comes to the amount of federal Section 8 funding it receives to provide housing to low-income residents, according to a review of records made available by the Lewiston Housing Authority. The corporation is also among the top 10 for the amount of city- and state-funded General Assistance rent payments it receives for tenants in financial crisis.

Over the past 22 months, Dunne has averaged one notice of violation per month and has received more than three times the number of the next-highest landlord on the list, who has six violations.

The notices are for a range of defects and cover a gamut of issues landlords deal with, from bedbug infestations to leaking roofs and no heat.

Dunne also owns several other buildings in separate corporations that provide both commercial and residential rents in the city.

Dunne, recently in the spotlight for signs he posted on two of his buildings attacking Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, declined comment for this report.

The signs, which he later removed and apologized for in a paid ad in the Sun Journal, likened Chin to the former Communist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. The signs urged voters, “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin.”

“Vote for more jobs, not more welfare,” the signs read.

Dunne said he was striking back at Chin because Chin had repeatedly called Dunne a “slumlord” in debates and other public appearances during the mayoral campaign.

But city officials and a lawyer who advocates for low-income tenants who end up in disputes with their landlords have defended Dunne.

On Wednesday, firefighters and city officials decided not to issue any citations to Dunne for the flammable materials in the basement of the building at 37 Jefferson St.

Assistant fire Chief Bruce McKay said Dunne responded quickly to their concerns and corrected the hazards once they had been pointed out by the city’s fire inspector.

“The reason we chose to remove the greatest hazard was not to have to displace families living there,” McKay wrote in an email message. Unable to reach Dunne immediately, firefighters moved the flammable materials to the outside of the building.

McKay’s message illustrates the ongoing struggle enforcement officials face in trying to protect public health and safety without forcing the closure of buildings that would leave poor tenants homeless.

“Joe Dunne, he’s been in the news a lot,” said Matt Dyer, a lawyer for Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Lewiston.

Pine Tree provides low- to no-cost legal help to the city’s low-income people.

“He’s a nice guy,” Dyer said of Dunne. “He really is, but he has a lot of buildings, they are all listed under these LLCs, these corporations and trusts. It’s just this real dizzying array of ownership.”

Dyer said he’s visited some of the apartments Dunne owns and operates and they are substandard.

“I don’t think he’s evil or anything, but some of the apartments I’ve been in, I’m sorry, but they are just out of control,” Dyer said. He said in dealing with Dunne, “he’s a very reasonable person.”

For Dyer and others, including James Dowling, the director of the Lewiston Housing Authority, the word “slumlord” has various connotations but none said they considered Dunne to be a slumlord. 

Dyer said to him, a true slumlord is someone who takes money for substandard housing, make promises to improve the properties that they never intend to keep and entices tenants in on false promises. Then they continue to collect rent while tenants are stuck with serious health and safety problems in their apartments or buildings.

Dowling said the federal funds that provide payment for Section 8 programs come with strict rules for landlords and require an annual health and safety inspection for apartments that are in the program.

Dowling said the housing authority can inspect a property based on a complaint, and when landlords do not remedy problems, they face financial sanctions in that they lose the payment they would have received from Section 8. That so-called abatement, which can be short term or permanent, is a strong financial incentive for landlords, Dowling said.

He said he believe some landlords become more interested in holding properties until their real estate market value improves enough to make a profit. Dowling said this type of landlord doesn’t necessarily make all the right investments to the property when it comes to health and safety, but instead may focus on less-expensive aesthetics, such as exterior paint, that may raise the market value.

“There’s probably more money to be made in buying and selling properties than there is to be made in holding on to properties and renting out the properties,” Dowling said.

He and David Hediger, Lewiston’s deputy director of planning and code enforcement, noted that the largest recipients of public subsidy for low-income rents, especially Section 8 funds, are seldom the source of long lists of code violations.

Part of that is because they have sufficient staff and resources to properly maintain their properties. Often those properties are large complexes and many are substantially newer or have been recently renovated, which keeps code violations at a minimum.

“These are buildings that were built at the same time, renovated around the same time, so it’s something that’s fairly predictable to manage,” Dowling said.

The downtown’s older rental housing stock, which has frequently changed hands, sometimes passing from owner to owner without investment or upgrades, is much more difficult to stabilize and maintain.

Newer housing developments often come with more stringent screening for tenants, including low-income tenants, and officials recognize there’s value in landlords like Dunne, who will offer shelter to people who may not be able to meet the screening standards of other apartment options.

“It’s very helpful to have owners in the community who will take a chance on a tenant with a less-than-sterling background,” Dowling said.

But, Dyer said, the bottom line needed to protect people’s health and safety depends on tough enforcement.

“I don’t have a lot sympathy for these people who say, ‘I can’t provide a product if I have to comply with the law,'” Dyer said. “And I don’t have a lot of sympathy for enforcers who say, ‘I’m going to look the other way because this is a really nice guy or gal and they are trying to provide housing.'”

Dyer said he wants low-income people to have housing.

“But there comes a point where the status quo just can’t go on anymore,” Dyer said.

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