LEWISTON — Three months after deciding to begin regular inspections of apartments rented to General Assistance clients, city staff say they are keeping up with the workload, and data shows the inspections to address safety issues are working.

The city’s decision in October came after repeated concerns from a downtown landlord led officials to review the policy, which until then, laid out a lax inspection process.

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 October, the city had not routinely inspected units rented through General Assistance, and had only inspected units if the city received a complaint.

Landlord Jay Allen, who has been outspoken on several housing issues, argued the previous policy was dishing out city dollars to landlords without knowing what they were paying for.

Last week, City Administrator Ed Barrett said the new system has been successful.

“So far, we have been pleased with how this has gone, both in terms of the workload on General Assistance and Code Enforcement and the results of the inspections,” he said recently.

According to Barrett, 27 General Assistance cases were reviewed under the new inspection protocol, resulting in 21 property inspections between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. Six of the properties had passed an inspection within the past year.

Of those 21 inspections, three properties were condemned, two did not rectify outstanding violations, and one is in a lawsuit concerning violations.

In the others, five properties that were sent violation letters are pending a re-inspection to rectify violations not considered life threatening; 10 properties were sent violation letters and subsequently corrected the violations; and six properties with no known or outstanding violations passed inspections.

Barrett said of the three condemned properties, only one affected a General Assistance client, “who was subsequently provided emergency assistance for a hotel until her heat and boiler unit were replaced.”

“There has only been one relocation of a GA tenant from a property,” he said regarding the first three months.

The city’s decision to implement the changes came as a mayor’s ad hoc committee is studying housing safety issues in Lewiston. While the group was formed to look into a possible rental registration program, its term was recently extended in so the group could complete a more comprehensive housing safety program.

There are between 250 and 350 units rented each month through the General Assistance program.

The city’s new policy is to inspect units within five days of a new tenant moving in. Barrett previously said it would likely take some time to catch up on inspections, but said as new clients come in, it would eventually ensure that units had been inspected within the past year.

Allen had previously told city officials that they should “call the bluff” of any landlord who says he or she will stop accepting General Assistance if the city implemented the inspections. 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.

On Tuesday, Barrett said that so far, many landlords renting through GA have been responsive in addressing issues.

Asked about what the data from the last three months reveals, he said, “I think these numbers are probably reflective of the situation we have generally faced over the years, although it may actually be somewhat improved due to the number of substandard structures that have been demolished.”

He said given the age of some of the city’s buildings, staff anticipates they will “frequently find violations, although many of them will be relatively minor.”

Barrett estimates that because many GA clients are relatively short-term, the city could be caught up on inspections of all its General Assistance units over 18 to 24 months.

During the October meeting, David Hediger, director of Planning and Code Enforcement, said he was confident code enforcement staff could handle inspections at the current pace.

Hediger said Tuesday that it has largely held true, stating “staff has handled the transition of additional inspections related to GA rental units very well.”

He admitted the department approached it cautiously given the additional work load for a staff already stretched thin, but said the number of requests from GA has so far been “manageable.” Part of the previous rental registration pitch was that it could help pay for more code officers.

As for the reaction from landlords and clients, Hediger said despite some learning curve, most landlords are now aware of the new ordinance. Some GA clients, he said, have been appreciative of the inspections, “specifically noting deficiencies that have existed in their units.”

He said others seem “complacent regardless of the unit’s condition.”

There is no uniform system for inspecting rental properties in Lewiston to determine code compliance.

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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