A Portland landlord has been ordered to pay more than $500,000 in fines to the city after refusing to correct life safety violations at a Woodfords Corner apartment building.
Portland District Court Judge Peter J. Goranites on Wednesday ordered landlord Sulan Chau to pay $510,300 in civil fines, as well as nearly $3,000 in attorneys fees and other court costs, for more than a dozen building code and life safety violations at 112 Woodford St., a five-unit apartment building. The fines, which must be paid within 30 days, appear to be the largest since the city began cracking down on landlords after a fire on Noyes Street in 2014 killed six young adults.
City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said the city tries to work with landlords to ensure safe housing, without going to court.
“However, when a landlord is persistently uncooperative, then the city is ready to take a firm stance to ensure the safety of its residents,” Grondin said. “This has been a team effort across city departments and we support the court’s decision to send a strong message.”
While possibly unprecedented, the fine was the minimum allowed in the city code, which charges a minimum $100 per violation per day for minor violations and $200 per violation per day for significant violations, according to court records. Maximum fines for minor violations allowed by city code are $2,500 per day, $5,000 a day for significant violations that go uncorrected after two written warnings.
Violations included obstructed exits, a lack of smoke detectors, electrical problems, “numerous instances of bed bugs” and leaky sewer pipes, the latter two of which remain uncorrected, according to court documents.
Some violations, such as obstructed exits, excessive storage and lack of fire doors, went uncorrected for more than two years.
In his decision, Goranites wrote that the substantial fines were appropriate because of “the lengthy history of violations at the property; the significant amount of effort put in by the city to obtain compliance; the fact that this is not the first dispute that the defendant has been involved in with the city; and the fact that city has not provided incorrect or inaccurate information to defendant.”
According to court documents, Chau did not appear for a Jan. 8 court hearing about the violations.
Chau, who has 21 days to appeal the decision, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Her son, Victor Chau, a real estate broker and Westbrook city councilor, declined to provide contact information for his mother, or to comment on her behalf.
Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said he had never heard of such a large fine being imposed on a landlord. However, Vitalius said city inspectors have been reasonable and accommodating to landlords who work with the city and make a good-faith effort to correct violations.
“I don’t think other landlords should be scared by this,” Vitalius said. “To the city’s credit, they only use that (per-day fine) in extreme cases. This sounds like extreme noncompliance, so it seems like they’re pulling out the big guns.”
Regan Sweeney, an attorney who has represented landlords and tenants for the last 10 years in Washington, D.C., and Portland, said it’s the largest fine for code violations that he knows of. If Chau is unable to pay within 30 days, Sweeney said, the city would likely place a lien on the building so it could receive a payment if the building is ever sold.
“That’s the cost of the building,” Sweeney said of the fine. “It’s a de facto forfeiture action, unless she can come up with the money from elsewhere.”
Grondin said firefighters discovered the code issues on Woodford Street during a routine inspection. She said tenants were allowed to remain in the building while the city tried to compel the landlord to fix the problems.
“People are still living there,” Grondin said in an email. “Many of the violations have been corrected, but most of those corrections have only been made since we served her with the complaint. The violations were not significant enough to post the property against occupancy.”
Court records show that the property has been inspected eight times since May 19, 2015.
Electrical issues noted by inspectors on Nov. 27, 2017, include a fan hanging from the ceiling, broken outlets, extension cords being used as permanent wiring, missing outlet covers, exposed wires in the basement and a circuit breaker that trips whenever a microwave is used in one of the units.
An inspection conducted Jan. 5 found that two of the five units were vacant, while a third unit was in the process of being vacated.
An attorney who represents one of the building’s tenants said in an email she was glad the city took strong action.
“Sulan Chau has a long history of failing to maintain her buildings and the low-income people who live in those buildings have been living in terrible conditions,” said Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal.
Chau has had problems at at least one other rental property.
Chau owned an apartment building at 133-135 Emery St., which the city had placed on a list of properties that were not safe for people receiving housing subsides. That property was profiled as part of a Maine Sunday Telegram investigation into the city’s housing inspection program.
Chau transferred ownership of the Emery Street building in November 2015 to an LLC controlled by her son. There was no fee recorded with that transfer.
“Victor has been cooperative in fixing violations found at that property and recently corrected violations found and cited by the (fire department) earlier in 2017,” Grondin said.
Sulan Chau also owns a three-unit building at 105 Falmouth St. and a single family home at 98 Codman St., according to tax records. Grondin said there are no open complaints at those addresses.
The investigation into Chau’s building on Woodford Street began as part of an intensified city enforcement effort after a November 2014 fire at 20-24 Noyes St. killed six young people.
The Noyes Street building had also been cited by the city for violations such as excessive storage of flammable material on the front porch, where the fire started in the early morning as smoking material was improperly discarded. The fire quickly spread through the apartment, which did not have functioning smoke detectors.
Landlord Gregory Nisbet was acquitted in October 2016 of manslaughter charges, but was found guilty of a misdemeanor code violation for not having a secondary exit from a third-floor bedroom. He was sentenced to three months in jail, but he is expected to appeal that sentence.
The Noyes Street fire – Maine’s deadliest in 40 years – prompted Portland to review its inspection practices and led to the creation of its Housing Safety Office and a new requirement that landlords register their units and pay a fee to the city. The registration fee is intended to fund a more robust inspection program.
Since then, the city has been more aggressive in taking unresponsive landlords to court.
Last year, the city received a court order to condemn an apartment building on East Oxford Street because of the number of police calls. The court also ordered the landlord, Clark Stephens, to put the building up for sale.
Grondin could not immediately provide specifics on the number of landlords who have been summoned for housing violations or the fines that have been assessed. But she said the number of court cases has actually been going down.
“Legal probably handles about 10 cases a month and (the legal department’s) actions could be as simple as an email to the landlord, a call to their lawyer, or a consent agreement that locks in place what they’ve committed to doing,” she said. “Because of this approach, we haven’t had to go to court as much.”
Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:
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