Know Your Rights

By Dan Northcutt

Arguably Downeast Maine’s greatest appeal lies in its rural, almost nostalgic nature. It’s a place where small town values are still endemic, New England work ethic is taken for granted, and residents are not quick to abandon traditional ways of life for the faster paced luxuries of cosmopolitan development. While it may not be the land that time forgot, it’s certainly the land where old times are still appreciated. Unfortunately, this lifestyle comes with unique obstacles. Monopolies on service industries and even utilities providers are common in our area. As a result of minimal industry and infrastructure Maine as a whole still suffers from the colloquially termed “brain drain,” with rural communities being the hardest hit. Nepotism in an already competitive and sluggish job market is a continuing issue, and the unique nature of housing in aging rural communities often causes problems to arise between landlords and their tenants. 

A tenant’s rights issue in the Dennysville area was recently brought to the attention of The Calais Advertiser. The anonymous tenants, who resides in a relatively large apartment complex, has reportedly suffered a number of serious issues since they took residency a year ago. Some of the complaints include weeks in the winter without heat, followed by weeks in the warm spring without the ability to turn the heat off, extremely poor water pressure, and a door so jammed that the tenant was forced to come in and out of their window for weeks before the issue was addressed. In addition the repairs that are made are not done so in anything resembling a timely fashion, and they tend to reoccur immediately thereafter. Upon inquiry, Tom Michaud, Housing Director for Dennysville Housing, who controls the property admitted familiarity with the tenants and their complaints but refused to comment regarding specific issues. Mr. Michaud did mention that formal complaints had been made to Maine State Housing Authority and that despite the tenants’ objections all issues had been handled accordingly. 

While this particular case may be extreme, the trend of tenant rights being neglected is not at all uncommon in our area. Many of the laws on the books are specific to apartment complexes with a certain number of units; where as many of the apartments in our towns are converted homes rather than purpose built structures. Other impediments include an ignorance of what specific rights are available to tenants of rental properties and what legal responsibilities a landlord has. Even if  tenants are informed of their rights, an inability to afford legal counsel is a very real problem. Perhaps the greatest issue is the Downeaster’s attitude toward maintaining the status quo; landlord and property managers have always operated in a certain fashion and tenants have come to expect and accept these inevitabilities whether they  meet the legal warranty of habitability or not.

Renters and landlords are encouraged to educate themselves regarding rights specific to their housing units. Agencies like the Maine State Housing Authority (mainehousing.org) and the Maine/U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development maintain easily accessible and updated  copies of tenant and landlord rights, many of which are written without complicated legalese in an effort be more accessible and user friendly. In addition aggregate legal sites like NOLO: Law for All (nolo.com) provide free downloadable pdf guides for both tenants and landlords as well as promoting free legal advice in these situations. Downeast Maine neighborhoods are comprised of some of the most historic and beautiful architecture America has to offer. Everybody, whether they own or rent, has a right to live within these communities in legally protected safety and comfort.