Crystal Cron hoped for a different outcome, but wasn’t surprised when she heard that landlord Gregory Nisbet had been cleared of manslaughter charges in a fatal Portland house fire.
The verdict, which came just after noon Friday, sends a message that tenants’ lives are less important than their rent checks, said Cron, who chairs the Portland Tenants Union.
“The overall sentiment is that tenants are ways (for landlords) to make money. Whatever happens to us is the consequence of being poor and being a tenant. If we had the means to buy a house, then we would not be at the mercy of landlords,” she said.
Cron said the verdict will galvanize efforts by the Portland Tenants Union to push for tenants’ rights before the City Council, including rent stabilization and measures to prevent the no-cause evictions of tenants who rent month to month and pay their rent on time.
“The issue of the fire is a huge one, and one that people have been following because it’s so tragic. But the tragedy is that we are not valued as human beings. We are paying higher costs and living in lower-quality housing. We should not have to trade costs for safety,” she said.
Six young people died in the Noyes Street blaze on Nov. 1, 2014. It was Maine’s deadliest house fire in 40 years.
Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said landlords are relieved about Friday’s verdict. They worried that if Nisbet had been found guilty of manslaughter, they could be held responsible for the actions of their tenants.
“Greg Nisbet was not the kind of landlord that we should hold up as a role model,” Vitalius said. “He was not the most attentive landlord. But that does not make him criminally negligent. It’s easy to think of all the things he did badly, but that is different than him being criminally negligent.”
Prosecutors portrayed Nisbet as an irresponsible landlord who rented to tenants without leases and failed to maintain his building safely. They contended he operated the building as a rooming house and not an apartment building, and that third-floor windows were inadequate as fire exits.
Fire investigators said the fire started in a plastic receptacle for cigarette butts on the front porch at 20 Noyes St. and quickly spread. The building was equipped with smoke detectors that had been disabled by tenants.
The trial began Oct. 3. Family members and friends of the victims wanted Nisbet convicted because they said his lax management and maintenance of the building contributed to the deaths.
Elizabeth Burke, a landlord who lives on Oakdale Street near the site of the fire, said the city was partly to blame for the fatal fire because it was plainly obvious to everyone in the neighborhood that the house was a problem and that Nibset was an irresponsible landlord.
“We all knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. You walked by it all the time to go to the corner grocery store, and there was garbage and beer bottles and kids and parties all the time,” she said. “I think almost everyone thinks he was a slumlord. But when an inspector doesn’t go to a building to check things out, then something is wrong with the city process.”
Burke, who has five tenants in her home, changed how she handles leases and fire-safety procedures with her tenants after the fire. She rewrote her lease agreements with tenants, adding a clause that allows her to evict tenants if they tamper with or disengage smoke detectors or if they prevent her from going into their rooms to inspect the smoke detectors or change the batteries. She also talks with tenants about fire-safety procedures.
“I sit down with them once a year now. We sit in the kitchen and talk about fire, how to properly use a fire extinguisher and where the fire boxes are on the street,” she said.
While she did not believe Nisbet would be convicted, she said the prospect of his conviction reverberated among Portland landlords. “We were all paying attention,” she said.
Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said the city has improved its housing inspection program since the fire. As mayor, it’s his responsibility to ensure there are adequate resources for inspectors to do their jobs, he said in a phone interview after the verdict.
Strimling called the situation “tragic.”
“When I knew the verdict was coming, I wasn’t sure how I would react,” he said. “I was just really sad. However the verdict went down, it’s not going to bring those kids back.”
Cron, the Portland Tenants Union leader, said her organization will continue to advocate for stronger laws and rules that benefit renters “so we can live free from the fear that we will be on the street” for speaking out about poor living conditions.
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: