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Paris board seeks public input on unsafe housing
PARIS — The citizens of Paris must weigh in on whether they want the town to address the issue of substandard housing, the Paris Board of Selectmen decided on Monday.
The Reverend Anne Stanley asked the board to address the issue after unsafe rental housing conditions in Paris and Norway were widely publicized last month.
Town Manager Phil Tarr said that, after consulting Fire Chief Brad Frost, he felt a Life Safety Code recommended by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) would help.
"The NFPA Life Safety Code 101, which is basic life safety, covers a lot of various safety issues and it would address the substandard housing issues that we seem to have," said Tarr. "The question is, do we want to adopt part of it, or the whole thing? Some of it might not apply to the town right now."
Board Chair Ted Kurtz said that the problem would not be entirely addressed by the Life Safety Code alone.
"If we're going to give consideration to the issue that I understood, ... we have to also have something in addition to the fire codes," said Kurtz.
Frost and Code Enforcement Officer Gerald Samson said that, right now, there is very little they can do about unsafe or unhealthy apartments in Paris.
"We don't have a housing ordinance. We have nothing to do with it [inspections]," said Samson.
"Because there's no ordinance, the only time I have access to a house is if we have a call there," said Frost. "Then if I find something that's really dangerous, I'll hold that house and call the state in. That's the only way I can do it."
In Norway, the CEO can inspect units under town ordinances that establish minimum standards for housing.
Samson said that, when he was the landlord of 65 Lewiston-based units in the 1980s, the federally-subsidized Section 8 program was very strict.
"Mine wouldn't qualify, because they're very strict. They were very strict," he said.
Selectman Ken West agreed that the program was also very strict about an apartment he had rented out.
Recent reports, however, have documented numerous cases in the area in which unsafe apartments in Paris and Norway were found to have passed inspection under the program.
"Something's happened over the years, in my estimation, to the system by which these apartments got into Section 8," said Samson.
In a written request to the board, Stanley asked the town to "ascertain and publicize the number of low-cost rental units in Paris and what the inspection process of those units entails. Who does it, and how often is it checked?"
"In theory, any apartment in town could qualify for Section 8 funding, and could therefore be considered a low-rent apartment," said Samson. He said that he would make a "wild guess" of a total of 500 rental units in town.
I think we can prepare a report on that," said Tarr. "I'll put it on the agenda for a future meeting."
Kirchherr, a long-time member of the Paris Planning Board, said that the desire for safe housing in the town is likely to come up against resistance to municipal interference with property owners.
"Based on my experience with the planning board, I would say that there is a substantial number of people who would not support it," said Kirchherr.
He also noted that town inspections of rental units would have to be funded in some way.
Frost noted that a previous ordinance which would have established a system for annual inspections died when it got to the public.
"It won't fly," he predicted.
"I'd like to hold a public meeting sometime in late winter or early spring with the idea that we hear from the public their comments and questions about a housing ordinance," said Kirchherr. "We could publicize it and get a sense of the public and what they want."