2014-09-19 / Front Page

Effort begins to fix Dunning St. building

Fire department condemns 11-unit Brunswick residence
BY JOHN SWINCONECK Times Record Staff

BRUNSWICK

A newly hired property manager at 9 Dunning St. said he is anxious to bring the building back up to code so that residents can return to their homes there.

The three-story, 11-unit building was condemned by the Brunswick Fire Department on Wednesday due to violations of fire and life-safety codes.

Bud Moody, who has rented a unit in the building since November 2013, said landlord Curtis Pass made him the property manager just days before the building was condemned.

“We will get back in as soon as possible,” Moody said in an interview Thursday. “There are a few things that really need to be done.”

On Wednesday, Pass told The Times Record that the town refused “to work with me” as he faced delays in bringing the building up to code.

However, according to correspondence between Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson and the town’s code enforcement officer Jeff Hutchinson, “the fire prevention office has been actively seeking compliance with state and local regulations at 9 Dunning St. since November of 2013.”

“The building owner, Mr. Curtis Pass, has been provided ample opportunity to resolve the issues and has been granted numerous extensions to which he has failed to comply,” Emerson wrote to Hutchinson on Sept. 16, when he requested from the COE that the building be evacuated. “Currently, the building remains occupied with life-safety violations unresolved and no indication of imminent corrective action.”

Tenants were notified Wednesday that the building was in “dangerous condition” and “unsafe for human occupancy or use,” making it unlawful for anyone to use or occupy the building, other than to move their belongings.

“We did our best to work with the situation that was presented,” Emerson said Thursday.

The building came under scrutiny after a request by Brunswick police in September 2013 to evaluate an unsafe apartment. Several deficiencies at the time were discovered.

An inspection was made in November 2013 and found 20 violations, including exposed wiring, temporary jack struts in the basement providing building support instead of permanent columns, and a fire alarm system insufficient for what was then a 12-unit building.

Emerson said he attempted another comprehensive inspection of the building on Sept. 12. Pass was unable to attend and while Pass’s attorney was present, Emerson said he was unable to access much of the building.

While Emerson said he received assurances that much of the code violations from November 2013 were fixed, there were still enough life-safety issues to warrant that the building be condemned.

Among ongoing violations:

— Sprinkler heads over the basement furnaces were not completed.

— Doors insufficient to slow the advance of a fire were installed in the laundry room and in the corridors.

— Some rooms lacked a means of secondary escape.

— Non-functioning emergency lights in the corridors.

— Egress throughout the building obstructed by storage.

— Disconnected smoke detector in at least one unit.

“We understand a lot of these are difficult to control as a landlord,” Emerson said. “A lot of it is tenantdriven. However, when you’re trying to get the same issue enforced over 12 months, the landlord does assume some responsibility.”

“Sometimes they ignore the rules,” said Moody, regarding tenants. “That problem will be eliminated when there’s somebody onsite.”

Emerson said that any one of those violations could present a serious hazard during a fire.

“Action needed to be taken, and it wasn’t taken,” Emerson said.

Emerson recalled a 2011 blaze at 45 Maine St. that reportedly left 13 people homeless. That building, too, he said, had life-safety issues.

While residents were asked to leave 9 Dunning St. under town ordinance, only tenants of six units vacated by Wednesday night, Emerson said.

Some residents interviewed Wednesday appeared blindsided by the news that they had to leave their homes. Both Pass and some tenants criticized Emerson for being inflexible.

“Was I unwilling to change the decision? Yes. In fairness, I think we explained things and we did listen to the people that asked to talk to us,” said Emerson.

“When you make a final decision that the place is not safe, you can’t say, ‘OK, we’re going to make that determination and then give two weeks,’ because there’s a fair amount of liability that goes with that,” said Emerson. “Once you determine a place is unsafe, it needs to be acted upon quickly.”

Neither Pass nor the town seems to have kept the tenants informed of the violations observed at 9 Dunning St. over the past year.

“At the end of the day, Curtis Pass is the property owner,” said Emerson. “I think Curtis Pass has a responsibility to keep his tenants informed as to what’s going on in his building.”

Moody said none of the tenants were made aware by anyone that there were problems that needed to be addressed.

“Nobody saw this coming,” said Moody, regarding the condemnation. “I was in complete shock, as was Curtis. There was no warning.”

Interim Town Manager John Eldridge said that Brunswick Housing Authority, which had three clients living in the building, was notified of the situation around 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Sweetser, which provides mental and behavioral health services, also had clients living at 9 Dunning St. That organization wasn’t informed by either Pass or the town that the building was to be condemned, according to Sweetser spokeswoman Stephanie Hanner.

It’s uncertain whether or not the town, the fire department was aware there were Sweetser clients living at the apartment before the building was condemned. The organization’s housing manager learned of it around the same time the rest of the tenants did, said Hanner.

While emotions run high, Moody struck a gentler tone Thursday evening.

“He’s a good guy — I know him,” Moody said, referring to Emerson. “He and I will meet in the morning and I will start contracting people to come in, so we can get everybody back as soon as possible.”

He praised the town for moving quickly to set up housing for tenants at the Rodeway Inn on Bath Road, as well as for providing meals and vouchers for taxis.

“The town did a great job getting everything set up,” Moody said.

Moody is staying in Harpswell while the building is closed. “I don’t need to use the town’s resources,” he said.

He said he has been cleaning up junk at the apartment, including discarded mattresses, that have accumulated at the property.

Eldridge said that tenants were told to come back today and if it appears they need additional assistance, “that will be provided.”

Eldridge said that the town has been in conversations with Pass and his attorney several times since the building’s condemnation.

“We told him that as soon as he corrected the deficiencies and cleared a subsequent inspection, we’d be fine allowing the building to be occupied again,” Eldridge said.

Pass would be the person “in control of that timeline,” said Eldridge.

The BHA conducts annual inspections, and landlords are given a “reasonable amount of time” to make corrections, depending on the deficiencies. For example, during an inspection at 9 Dunning St. a deficiency was found related to a smoke detector. Pass was given 24 hours to make the correction, and he complied, said John Hodge of the Brunswick Housing Authority.

“In instances where they make an effort, we work with them. If they’re ignoring you, we don’t waste time. We suspend payments” of the vouchers, said Hodge.

“Mr. Pass has been a responsive landlord,” said Hodge. “No one’s perfect, but he’s made an effort when we’ve asked him to comply.”

Like the Brunswick Housing Authority, Sweetser also conducts annual inspections for as long as their client lives there, according to Hanner.

“We will also look into any complaints a tenant may have while living in a unit, and inspect again after the landlord has completed work to make sure it has been done,” Hanner said in an email to The Times Record.

Pass has already received BHA’s subsidy for September. Whether he receives additional subsidies, or whether BHA’s clients will have to take their vouchers elsewhere, remain to be seen.

Hodge said he respected both Pass and the town, but he was ultimately concerned with what’s in the best interest of BHA clients.

“My personal point of view is we have people’s lives that we’re dealing with, and we need to come together for a solution that’s in their best interests,” Hodge said. “We’re looking out for our three residents.”

Moody said that the tenants want to come back as soon as possible.

Having a property manager living at the apartment may help keep violations from re-occurring, Moody said.

Some of the residents on vouchers had already experienced homeless, and Moody said there had been a lot of anxiety on Wednesday.

“They’re really worried. It’s the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen,” Moody said.

“We’re trying to resolve an issue, and it’s not our intention to create hardships for people,” Emerson said. “We’re trying to resolve an unsafe situation and work with people the best we can.”

jswinconeck@timesrecord.com

Ongoing violations:

SPRINKLER HEADS over the basement furnaces were not completed.
DOORS INSUFFICIENT to slow the
advance of a fire were installed in the laundry room and in the corridors.
SOME ROOMS lacked a means of
secondary escape.
NON-FUNCTIONING emergency
lights in the corridors.
EGRESS THROUGHOUT the building obstructed by storage.
DISCONNECTED SMOKE detector
in at least one unit.

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