The fire last month on Noyes Street that claimed six lives has brought some long-overdue attention to the dangers posed by derelict properties. The city’s code-inspection and fire-prevention programs have serious deficiencies — lack of staff, shoddy recordkeeping, inconsistent follow-up — and these problems have existed for years. In the aftermath of the Noyes Street tragedy, city officials have finally formed a task force to look into the situation.
For an eye-opening example of a tragedy waiting to happen, they should take a walk down Tate Street, a narrow, one-way alley in the West End, and peek inside the six-unit duplex at 35-37.
This, my friends, is what’s known as a squat: an abandoned and neglected building that shelters criminals and the homeless. The first-floor “bedrooms” of this duplex all contain clear signs of illegal occupancy: bedding made of cushions and sheets, piles of clothes and trash, empty bottles and cigarette butts on the floor. Among the items heaped in one corner room: a copy of Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton.
West End Neighborhood Association President Rosanne Graef said the duplex has been the site of drug and criminal activity for years. A neighbor recalled seeing taxis stop at the property at all hours of the day and night. Their fares would briefly duck into the duplex, then hurry back to the idling cabs.
Another neighbor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was more than one overdose at the duplex before the landlord kicked all the tenants out and began a remodeling job. The neighbor said that work was halted when it was discovered the place was infested with bedbugs, and the property has since been condemned.
City inspection records don’t contain any reports about bedbugs, but they tell a long story of neglect that goes back to the 1980s, when the duplex belonged to a guy named Andre Bellucci. Back then, inspectors documented structural problems such as illegal electrical splices, broken windows, a lack of emergency egress from several units, and a hole in a kitchen floor. By 1988, the building was declared unfit for human occupancy.
Those issues were either resolved or ignored for two decades. The violation trail runs cold before picking back up again in 2010, with a vengeance. The duplex was practically a second home for city inspectors that year. They found problems ranging from unregistered vehicles parked on the property to structural issues (including a leaky roof) to overflowing trash cans and vermin-friendly conditions. In May of 2012, the place was once again declared unfit for human habitation.
Police calls to this address in the past year include five calls about unsecured doors, a criminal complaint, the burglary of a motor vehicle, two calls for “persons bothering” and two fire-related calls. When I visited the property last month, all the doors and ground-floor windows were either locked, boarded up or (in the case of one front door) both. But as the human middens in several rooms prove, people have been getting inside somehow.
Around back, a steep, rickety wooden fire escape I deemed too unsafe to climb leads to windows on the upper floors that may provide access. Near the bottom of those stairs, on a little landing beneath an overhang, someone had a made of damp nest of old coats. Broken appliances and other garbage are strewn in the narrow gap between a badly broken fence and the rear wall of the building. The tiny side yard smelled faintly of urine.
County records indicate the duplex is in foreclosure, but as recently as this year it was owned by David O’Donnell — brother of former Portland City Councilor and Mayor Peter O’Donnell, from Munjoy Hill — who lives in East Deering. Reached by phone, O’Donnell told me the duplex has been vacant since the first week of this year. He said he wasn’t sure whether his property had been cited for code violations, and offered an odd explanation for its bad reputation in the neighborhood — most of the complaints were made by a disgruntled former owner of the property, he said, who wants the building to be considered a nuisance in hopes that will lead to it being put back on the market. O’Donnell said he couldn’t remember the former owner’s name.
When I brought up the subject of code violations again, O’Donnell clammed up. “I don’t like the sound of this article and I’m not going to help you write a bad picture of the building,” he told me.
Photographer and art-framer Jay York knows a bad picture when he sees one, and he’s all too familiar with O’Donnell’s work. York said O’Donnell has been a partner in Three Stooges Property LLC (“The name of his business says it all,” York quipped). Three Stooges, which has been a party to legal proceedings involving O’Donnell, owned and managed six buildings next to York’s workshop and residence on Wilmot Street, in Bayside.
“When Three Stooges Property was managing those 35 apartments, living here was like being neighbors with the Beans of Egypt, Maine,” York wrote in an e-mail to The Bollard. “More drunks and heroin addicts then [sic] I’d ever seen. So many police, fire, and ambulance calls were made to Wilmot Street every week that the city got involved with safety inspections but never shut any of the buildings down. I was told by a city employee they didn’t want to displace that many people.”
One of the Tate Street neighbors who’s seen similar activity at the duplex is now even more worried due to the Noyes Street fire. The neighbor said that among all the other problems with the property, it has not had functional smoke detectors. “We don’t need any more horror stories,” the neighbor told me.
— Patrick Banks