While landlords cannot restrict visitors to their properties, some have suggested it to help stop the spread of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Lewiston has a large number of apartment complexes in the downtown area, like these at the corner of Knox and Birch streets. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Landlords can’t legally restrict tenants from having guests, but some are recommending it as Maine confronts the spread of COVID-19.

In response to concerns from a Lewiston renter who said their building access is being limited to only tenants and caregivers, the Sun Journal spoke with legal experts and local landlords who say the issue is mostly uncharted territory.

For cities such as Lewiston, with more than half of its population living in rental properties, renters may be relying on family, friends or even hired help for food, medicine or child care, and need all to access their building.

For landlords, it may be more about recommending safe practices for tenants rather than imposing strict rules.

“As a tenant, you control access to the space and you have a right to have guests,” said Frank D’Alessandro, litigation and policy director for Maine Equal Justice. “The landlord can’t just say you can’t have guests.”

D’Alessandro, who also worked at Pine Tree Legal for years, said there doesn’t appear to be anything in Gov. Janet Mills’ recent orders that addresses this issue, but that if a tenant had a gathering of more than 10 guests there would likely be legal ground for action.

Zack Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said Thursday that among the issues now is tenants being asked to work from home while their children are also home from school. He said visitor restrictions could impact child care.

“That’s very difficult, especially if you’re living in a small apartment,” he said. “Parents are relying on grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles to help get through this.”

Heiden said tenants, like homeowners, must be trusted to make responsible decisions for themselves and the community.

The renter who reached out to the Sun Journal said that while he recognizes the need to be “vigilant” against spreading the coronavirus, telling tenants not to have visitors is counterproductive, especially since at-risk tenants need access to friends and family.

Amy Smith, a Lewiston landlord who is heavily involved in community-building efforts in the Tree Streets neighborhood, where 96% of residents are renters, said most landlords are likely just trying to navigate the difficult times.

She said landlords can suggest or urge limiting outside guests, but that an outright ban would be unenforceable.

On the flip side, she said, she’s heard from one property maintenance company that tenants are not allowing them into their units to do routine repairs because they don’t want to risk infection.

“It’s such a tricky situation,” she said. “No lease I’ve ever seen has any language that contemplates (or) has regulations around infectious diseases and quarantines.”

At her properties, she said she’s “trusting people to do the right thing.”

Rather than tackling the issue with strict rules, she said landlords should be circulating as much information as possible, or posting notes in buildings. Now, she’s helping to distribute flyers about COVID-19 that are translated into eight languages.

Smith has also been working on strategies for landlords and tenants to “collaborate productively” in the face of the crisis. Specifically, she’s trying to get the word out to Section 8 renters that they need to quickly report any change of income to Lewiston Housing, especially as more people begin to deal with unemployment.

For public housing authorities, like many senior living communities, the coronavirus has brought on a unique set of challenges.

Martin Szydlowski, the new executive director of the Auburn Housing Authority, recently sent out a notice to tenants that described the closure of its office and community room that normally hosts a number of activities and classes.

He said the organization is erring on the side of caution regarding tenant interaction, but knows it cannot restrict outside visitors and family members.

“Deciding upon the office closing and eliminating tenant activities was not a decision made lightly and AHA staff realizes this may be an inconvenience, but we thank you for your patience and understanding during these unsettled times,” he said in the note.

Szydlowski said many tenants receive regular visits from physical or occupational therapists and that the housing authority is trusting tenants to make their own decisions about visitors.

The organization has been in on a number of conference calls with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regarding the issue, and Auburn is consistent with what many public housing authorities are doing, he said.

Rick Whiting, the outgoing longtime director, said Wednesday that the current guidelines are aimed at limiting visitors, and that bringing groceries to a family member would not be questioned.

He suggested some local renters may be “overreacting to responsible precautions in a burgeoning crisis.”

“This could be another bubonic plague era if people don’t start taking it more seriously,” he said.


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