LEWISTON — The city will begin regular code inspections of apartments rented to General Assistance clients.

The move comes after repeated concerns from a downtown landlord led officials to review the policy.

Jay Allen, a Lewiston landlord, has called the city’s lack of inspections of the units “incredibly wrong,” and said it was hypocritical of the city to advocate for housing safety issues while not inspecting General Assistance units. 

“You’re putting people in harm’s way and paying for it,” Allen told the City Council on Sept. 4. 

Through the General Assistance program, the city pays a set amount per month to participating landlords for the housing of a qualified General Assistance client. Until now, the city has not routinely inspected units that are rented through General Assistance, and has only inspected a unit if the city receives a complaint.

City officials decided Tuesday to begin inspecting units within a five-day period from when a new tenant moves in. City Administrator Ed Barrett said it would likely take some time to catch up on inspections, but as new clients come in, it would eventually ensure that units had been inspected within the past year.

The City Council approved the change Tuesday, even as Barrett said some landlords have told him they might stop accepting General Assistance tenants if the rules were changed.

“It’s a step in the right direction, obviously,” Councilor Jim Lysen said. “If landlords don’t want to rent with these simple restrictions, there’s others who will.”

Barrett said there are between 250 and 350 units rented each month through the city program. 

Allen said the city should “call the bluff” of any landlord who says he or she will stop accepting General Assistance. He said while the monthly rents paid through the program are low, some landlords do not want to pay to bring properties up to code. 

Allen has also been at the center of the argument over a proposal to establish a rental registration program in Lewiston, which would charge an annual fee to landlords to pay for increased code inspections.

He left a committee responsible for studying the issue after its first meeting, after he almost came to blows with landlord Joe Dunn. 

Allen said Tuesday he saw the General Assistance inspections issue “as a big liability issue for a city I’ve come to love. I’m glad to see we’re looking into it.”

Barrett said he would like the city to try the inspections for three to six months, and report back on how many inspections had been done and on the results of those inspections. 

According to his memo to the City Council, the rate of new clients entering the program has declined over the past year, and General Assistance now estimates it assists five to eight new clients per week who seek housing in Lewiston.

“David Hediger, Director of Planning and Code, believes that inspecting this number of properties each week is achievable if the standard is to have the inspection completed within five working days of a client informing us that they have found an apartment,” the memo read.

In a related matter, the City Council unanimously approved changes to the General Assistance rules that give more flexibility to those renting units. 

The new language will provide distinctions between minor and life-threatening code issues, which would allow General Assistance payments to be used for a unit with a minor code violation. If a violation is considered serious or life-threatening, the city would not continue paying rent for the property.

“It seems like a best-of-both-worlds scenario,” said Kristen Cloutier, presidents of the City Council. “It gives some flexibility, but makes sure we’re inspecting buildings that may have problems we don’t know about.” 

Barrett said the General Assistance department has had “limited access to information on buildings with violations,” but that the department has been working with Code Enforcement more closely. 

In his memo, Barrett said the city is in the process of improving the information available to the General Assistance department on buildings with outstanding violations, which will allow General Assistance to check the status of buildings to see if there are known problems.

Currently, there is no uniform system for inspecting rental properties in Lewiston to determine code compliance.

“As a result,” Barrett said, “clients can be and are living in properties that have not been recently inspected.”

 The rental registration committee is studying ways to create a uniform system for all departments to access up-to-date code information. 

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