BAR HARBOR — Town officials are working on a plan to create a registration program for long-term rentals to ensure their safety.
The town currently requires inspections for vacation rentals, shared accommodations and employee living quarters, but year-round rentals don’t need to be regularly inspected for potential fire, health or safety hazards.
“Bar Harbor presently relies solely on a complaint-based type of system (neighbors and tenants) to ensure safe and adequate housing,” Code Enforcement Officer Angela Chamberlain and fire Chief Matthew Bartlett wrote in a memo presented to the Town Council last week. “A program with systematic inspections can help ensure that the rental housing stock is maintained and that our guests and residents live in healthy conditions.”
In an interview with the Islander, Chamberlain said the current system is reactive and likely misses problems. A registration program could help detect and improve deteriorating rentals, provide minimum standards and prevent overcrowding.
Chamberlain wanted to see the new program emphasize education before enforcement for fear of cutting deeper into the already undersized island rental housing stock. The program could also provide a clearer picture of how many long-term rentals there are in town as people work to create more housing.
Studies have shown that a substantial number of dangerous code violations go undetected in communities that don’t have registration programs.
In Seattle, a study looked at complaint driven code enforcement systems and inspected 350 randomly selected apartments. The study found that more than half of the properties had violations that weren’t reported by tenants and neighbors.
In San Francisco, a study of 197 tenants in 157 different apartment buildings in Chinatown found that although 62 percent of tenants said they had multiple issues with their apartments, only 28 percent complained to their landlord and 11 percent reported violations to a government agency or community organization.
In Memphis, another study found that complaint-based enforcement systems only identified about 20 percent of violations.
Several other communities in Maine have some sort of rental registration program, including Sanford, Orono, Rockland, Portland, Lewiston and Yarmouth. Support for registries grew after a 2014 fire in a Portland apartment building killed six people. The city’s program requires annual registration, and the fee is currently set at $60.
At the council’s meeting last week, council member Matthew Hochman said he thought implementing a program was a “no-brainer” and the council voted to have staff draw up an action plan.
“I’ve lived in apartments in this town that there was absolutely no way they should have been rented out,” he said.
There were some concerns about making the process too onerous for landlords, which could cause them to give up renting year-round rentals or push tenants out.