Hollis McLaughlin Jr. was, by general consensus of the denizens of downtown, the hardest-working man in Portland, a title he carried with pride for five decades until his untimely death (possibly from COVID-19) in February of last year, at age 63.
“He was always a hustler,” said John Napolitano, whose grandmother was a friend and neighbor of Hollis’ stepmother, Kay McLaughlin, on South Street, in Portland’s Gorham’s Corner neighborhood (best known today for the statue of director John Ford that overlooks the intersection). “Commencing as a young child,” his obituary noted, “Hollis shoveled snow [and] worked as a shoeshine boy.” Napolitano recalled that Hollis would take pretty much any odd job a neighbor offered back in the 1960s.
In the early ’70s Hollis started washing dishes and bussing tables at Ye Olde Pancake Shoppe, a diner on Congress Street run by the DiPhilippo family. He worked there nearly every day for nearly 25 years. Carrie L. Robbins, a student at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, was sitting at a table in 1997 when suddenly, she wrote her Salt piece, “the meaty, flexed arm of the busboy appears in front of my face.”
“Feel that,” Hollis commanded.
“I squeeze his arm,” Robbins wrote. “He offers up a toothy, dimpled grin and exclaims, ‘No fat here! I work out at my brother’s house.’”
“There’s lightning and then there’s Hollis McLaughlin,” wrote Robbins. His coworkers had given him a nickname: The Machine. Hollis “speeds to a nearby table and sweeps the meal’s remnants into a bucket. He glances at me every few seconds to make sure that I am watching him as he swipes the table with a wet rag and slaps down rolled silverware and laminated menus violently.
“Hollis steps back,” Robbins continued, “throwing his hands up and looking to me for approval. ‘See? All done! They try, but they can never catch me. Some guy came in yesterday, he said I’m gonna get a speeding ticket if I don’t slow down!’”
Hollis told Robbins he enjoyed his work. “I know all the people, too,” he added. Hollis “calls everyone by name and remembers every detail of [their] lives,” she observed.
Friends of Hollis interviewed for this story likewise marveled at his encyclopedic memory and love of labor. But one who knew him better than most, a source we’ll call T., also remarked that Hollis sometimes told lies.
“What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Hollis?” T. would ask.
“My mother’s baking 52 pies!” Hollis might brag, or, “There’s gonna be so many people that we’ll have to have two seatings!”
These fibs flew with most of Hollis’ sidewalk and lunch-counter acquaintances (this reporter included). But if, like T., you knew him well and long enough to ask the same questions year after year, you caught on that something wasn’t right. You realized, for example, that Hollis didn’t buy his stepmother a “Hoovah” vacuum cleaner for Mother’s Day, because he’d said the same thing the previous year, and the Mother’s Day before that.
In fact, Hollis spent Thanksgivings at The Portland Club, the private social club on State Street that opens its doors to the poor and homeless for holiday meals. And according to T. — who was told this by one of Hollis’ siblings and by Hollis himself — Hollis suffered brutal physical abuse and neglect at the hands of his father, Hollis Sr., and his stepmother during his early childhood. As industrious as he was, it turns out there was another reason Hollis jumped at any opportunity to not be at home.
“Hollis endured House of Horrors—type stuff,” T. continued, noting that these days a kid like Hollis would be considered on the spectrum. “He was just like the whipping post — locked up in closets, tied to beds. If he wet the bed he had to sleep on the floor in the closet. The guy just got like completely pulverized. … Hollis would be thrown across the room into a wall when he was, like, four.”
Which brings us to the subject of this story. Hollis McLaughlin Jr., the hardest-working guy in town, was mercilessly exploited for decades by Geoffrey I. Rice, who’s long been considered, by general consensus of the denizens of downtown, the hardest-hearted slumlord in Portland. He’s also the biggest slumlord in Maine’s largest city, in control of more commercial and residential buildings than any other individual property owner.
Rice and his minions worked Hollis like a dog, compelling him to clean Rice’s properties in exchange for “rent” in the Trelawny Building, next to Joe’s Smoke Shop downtown. But the room Rice “rented” to Hollis for 23 years was unfit even for a canine. It had no electricity, no bathroom, no kitchen, no running water, and Hollis most likely could not control its temperature, given that most of the windows in the old building don’t open, and tenants who do crack a window during “heating season,” defined in the lease as the period from Sept. 15 to May 15, face fines and eviction on five-days’ notice if their window is open “for over three (3) minutes,” the Trelawny lease states.
When Rice evicted Hollis on short notice about seven years ago, it was further discovered that he had not been keeping track of Hollis’ work hours. The uninhabitable room Hollis occupied was essentially worthless as a housing unit, so all of Hollis’ labor toward the value of its rent was effectively stolen by Rice. Based on the length of his tenancy at the Trelawny, Hollis may have been cheated out of at least half a million dollars’ worth of pay.
This story is ostensibly about Rice, but he isn’t important. Now in his mid-80s, Rice is a cowardly, dastardly, avaricious parasite of a person unworthy to shine Hollis’ shoes. What’s important are the many thousands of working people who, like Hollis, have been exploited by Rice for over half a century simply because they need an affordable place to live or do business.
You also won’t find many “important” government officials quoted here (e.g., city councilors, city managers, fire chiefs). Their decades of silence and inaction as Rice has allowed his properties — several of them historically significant — to fall apart in plain sight speaks for itself. The lawyers at Portland City Hall certainly know Rice is an inveterate scofflaw. The city has placed over 320 liens on Rice properties since 1981, apparently for late payment of property taxes year after year after year.
And despite pledges by Portland officials to improve safety inspections in the wake of the 2014 apartment-house fire on Noyes Street that killed six people, Rice’s dangerously neglected properties are still largely ignored. Tenants told Mainer of windows and chunks of masonry falling to the sidewalk outside the eight-story Trelawny Building, smoke alarms that didn’t work and fire escapes to nowhere, antiquated and jury-rigged electrical systems, and much more. It seems only sheer luck has prevented one of Rice’s dumps from becoming the next deadly tragedy.
Rice’s tenants have now taken matters into their own hands. Facing rent hikes and evictions during the pandemic last year, a group of renters active in the local progressive movement formed the Trelawny Tenants’ Union to fight back against Rice and push city officials to do their jobs, and they’ve already had a few small victories.
Rice may have felt relieved years ago when he was able to settle Hollis’ wage-theft and eviction case for about $5,000 — a mini-windfall Hollis likely squandered on scratch tickets, dreaming of winning the kind of sum he had, unbeknownst to himself, already earned. Unlike other notorious Portland landlords — such as Joe Soley, whose Old Port holdings are dwarfed by Rice’s empire — Rice keeps an extremely low profile and has managed to stay out of the news.
Mr. Rice’s Neighborhoods
Let’s take a quick tour of Geoffrey Rice’s kingdom, starting with the most glaring example of his gross negligence as a property owner and neighbor: the Schwartz Building (600-604 Congress St.).
Built in 1920, the Schwartz Building occupies one of the most heavily trafficked intersections in the state, where High Street meets Congress in the heart of Portland’s Arts District. It’s across from Congress Square Park, the Portland Museum of Art and the State Theatre.
We profiled this property twice, in 2012 and 2017, for the That’s My Dump! feature that ran in The Bollard. The Portland Press Herald has also reported on it. The building’s renovation is “proceeding, despite the appearance,” Greg Mitchell, Portland’s Economic Development Director, assured the newspaper, responding to growing concerns that it was a blight hurting tourism. “Some of these things just take time. … I’m very confident we are going to get there.”
That was back in June … of 2011, and the Schwartz Building is still vacant and a clear threat to public safety. Most worrisome, its massive red-brick clock tower is visibly leaning in anticipation of collapse. “If the tower falls over, it’ll probably fall over towards the parking lot” behind WCSH, the TV station next door, “so there’s nothing to be afraid of,” project architect Jim Sterling jokingly told us in 2012.
Or check out the photo on the cover of this month’s issue, taken last month, showing one of the recessed entrances to the Schwartz Building. Urban planners warn against creating or allowing spaces like this in cities because they encourage vandalism, public urination and defecation, public sex, and drug use (all of which happen there with some frequency, neighbors say), and provide ready cover for more serious crimes, like assault and rape.
The city has taken some action to improve the property’s appearance. A decade ago, it handed Rice $11,000 as part of Portland’s Façade Improvement Plan. The multi-millionaire initially responded by replacing the big glass windows on the ground floor with sheets of plywood that quickly became a chaotic public billboard covered with graffiti and flyers. At the time, Sterling and Rice’s attorney, Paul Bulger, said work on the project was delayed because Rice was seeking a far greater amount of public money in the form of federal historic-preservation tax credits.
The plywood has since been removed, and for years, up to the present day, small work crews have been seen doing something inside. But whatever they’re doing, it has yet to result in a single unit of rented housing or retail space. In the midst of what local politicians have long called a “housing crisis,” and as homeless people freeze to death every winter within walking distance of the place, this building that had 20 studio apartments a dozen years ago shelters only the occasional squatter in the alley around back or the aforementioned rape cave.
According to the city’s most recent property valuation, the Schwartz Building is worth over $2.9 million. Tack on the adjacent space at 606 Congress St., occupied by The Downtown Lounge, and the combined value of this little piece of Rice’s realm tops $3.5 million.
Other Rice holdings in the 600 block of Congress include the three-story commercial building at 614-620 Congress* (home of the original Coffee By Design) valued by the city at $2.2 million. The retail space (currently occupied by Kushiya Benkay restaurant) with an apartment above at 653 Congress is valued for tax purposes at $437,500. Next door, the 124-unit Trelawny Building weighs in at almost $16 million, and the property across the street, at 656-58 Congress (The Merchant Company, Mainely Noods, 19 apartments), is valued at over $2.1 million. Lastly, there’s 684 Congress St. (Allen & Walker Antiques, a new weed shop, 10 apartments), valued at $1.6 million.
Now let’s turn onto State Street. Rice owns six apartment buildings (about 80 units total) and a four-family house on State with a combined assessed value north of $14 million. (It’s worth noting here that property values assessed for tax purposes are, in a red-hot market like this, well below what they’d actually sell for.) The property on the corner of State and Pine streets is notable as the home of Blackstones, the oldest gay bar still operating in town. A porn shop called the Treasure Chest, next to Blackstones, has also been a Rice tenant for decades.
Over on High Street, Rice has a nine-unit apartment building worth about $1.3 million. His holdings on Cumberland Avenue are clustered at its western end: three apartment buildings (one with 27 units) worth nearly $6 million combined, and a single-family home valued at over $600,000. Further down into Parkside we find a six-unit on Sherman Street and a seven-unit on Grant, both worth nearly a million bucks.
Rice’s two apartment buildings on Brackett Street, in Portland’s West End, comprise 13 units with a combined value of about $2 million. Not far away, on Danforth Street, Rice has three adjacent buildings valued at nearly $3 million combined. The most valuable of these (to the tax man, at least) is the four-unit at 126-28 Danforth. This million-dollar property, steps from Victoria Mansion, appears to have been vacant for years. One of the front doors is tagged with graffiti. Construction materials and debris are visible through the windows, but there’s no indication it’s an active worksite.
Off the peninsula, in Deering Center, Rice owns the building at the corner of Stevens and Pleasant avenues formerly occupied by Jet Video and now home to a Rwanda Bean coffee shop, among other commercial tenants, and the occupants of six second-story apartments ($1.5 million). At Woodfords Corner, he owns the corner building occupied by The Bayou Kitchen and State of Mind Design, which also has two apartments ($1 million). And farther up Forest Ave., at Morrill’s Corner, he owns the cinder-block building where Susan’s Fish & Chips and an auto-repair place do business ($670,000).
Anything else? Oh, just a nine-unit on Highland Avenue worth $1.5 million, a little two-unit on Deering Ave. worth half a mil, and some parking lots downtown that the city values at about $245,000 combined. Rice also has two sizeable properties in Biddeford: the 10-unit apartment building at 225 Alfred St. ($480,000), and the strip mall near the intersection of Routes 1 and 111 occupied by a CVS and an Aaron’s rent-to-own location, among other businesses ($2.3 million).
In total, these properties constitute a portfolio worth nearly $63 million, including nearly 375 housing units. Most of the buildings appear, from the street, to be in passable condition. Nearly all could use a paint job and/or masonry work, and the landscaping is generally bleak, though the tenants of some properties, like the three-unit at 291 Brackett, appear to have taken it upon themselves to pretty the place up. Down the street at 235 Brackett, the yard was weedy and trashy last month, a wrecked car sat in the gravel parking lot around back, and a big city-issued violation for failure to clear snow from the sidewalk was still stuck to the front door.
Who is this monster?
Geoffrey Rice did not build or earn his real-estate fortune; he inherited it from his parents, Rebecca and Harry Rice, who owned and operated Rice’s Baking Co. in Portland for over half a century and used their profits to buy properties back when real estate in the city was relatively cheap. The retail and wholesale baking operation was originally in the old Italian and Jewish neighborhood at the foot of Munjoy Hill, and later moved to the Forest Ave. spot since occupied by Susan’s Fish & Chips. A source recalled buying bagels at the Rices’ bakery in the old neighborhood and then crossing the street to get cream cheese at a market owned by Rebecca Rice’s parents, Russian immigrants Charles and Lena Seavey.
A source once close to Rice, whom we’ll identify as S., said young Geoffrey “had no childhood to speak of,” being forced to toil in his parents’ bakery while other kids were out playing. Rebecca Rice’s obituary speaks to this obsession with grueling labor. “Her days often began at 3 a.m. and ended at 7:30 p.m.,” it read. “She only took time off to observe religious holidays and enjoy rare (by choice) vacation time, all the while looking forward to getting back to work.”
Jonathan St. Laurent, who ran his Uncle Billy’s Barbeque restaurant in several locations over the years — the last was one of Geoffrey Rice’s Congress Street properties — said he got a job at the Rices’ bakery when it was on Forest Avenue. He lasted one day.
“She worked me like a rented mule,” St. Laurent said of Rebecca Rice, who died in 2010 at the age of 95 (Harry Rice passed away in 1967). The bakery was filled with “long, old-fashioned wooden tables” upon which the dough was worked, he said. At the end of the shift, St. Laurent was charged with cleaning the tables. He asked Mrs. Rice if there was any soap to make the task easier. “No,” she replied, according to St. Laurent, “soap is too expensive. Just use water.”
In the years after the bakery closed, Rebecca Rice worked in the rental office, helping to manage the family’s empire. Sources recall her as tough but kindhearted. For example, one said she gave Hollis a Christmas bonus every year: a $20 bill. In reference to a tenant trying to renew their lease, she’d typically tell the office manager, “See if you can get five dollars more,” an insider confided. “But Geoff would say, ‘See if you can get two hundred dollars more.’”
This is a good place to explain why Mainer has granted anonymity to some sources. Some are speaking as whistleblowers alleging violations of housing and labor laws, as well as related crimes like tax evasion (e.g., if Hollis was working off the books, his compensation was untaxed and the value of his work unaccounted for in Rice’s ledgers).
Sources who are current tenants fear their rent could be raised or they will be evicted if they speak out. According to S., their fears are warranted. “More than once … somebody would come in the office and say, ‘Jeez, I’ve been trying to get this fixed for a week, two weeks, a month’ or whatever, and [office staff] would say, ‘OK, we’ll take care of it.’ As soon as they left, [the staff] would say either ‘raise their rent,’ or they evict people for almost no cause sometimes, just for spite because you asked too much.
“All the tenants there, they were aware of who they’re dealing with,” S. added, “but they’ll go in the office and they’ll kiss ass because they know what the consequences could be.”
And more than one source cited the fact that Geoffrey Rice is known to have used hired muscle to evict tenants and take care of other “problems” related to his business and family. “I don’t want to get a brick through my window,” one source remarked.
Three years ago, The Bollard profiled one of these heavies: Danny (a.k.a. Frankie) Fournier [see “The Enforcer,” January 2018]. Fournier, variously described by law enforcement as a “one-man crime wave” and “career criminal,” was hired by Rice to do maintenance and construction work many years ago, and later did freelance lease enforcement for him.
“He’s called me up,” Fournier said of Rice in late 2017. “Geoffrey’s tight-lipped. When he wants to talk about somethin’, he’ll say, ‘Hey, can you meet me in the parking lot down here? Hey, man, I’m having some problems with these tenants in here and, um, I didn’t know whether you could help me with that.’
“I said, ‘I got it covered, Geoffrey. Don’t worry about it. Say no more,’” Fournier continued. “I grew up in the old school, I’m pretty fuckin’ sharp, and I got it handled. I went in, I kicked the fuckin’ doors in, smacked the piss out of ’em. Said, ‘Get the fuck out. I ain’t callin’ cops on ya, dude.’ And I wasn’t alone. I had my Kennedy Park crew” (a reference to the housing project in Portland’s East End).
Reached by phone last month, Fournier defended his old boss. “I like Geoff,” he said. “Geoff has done a lot of good things.” For example, “I’ve seen people live in the Trelawny Building for years and not pay rent,” said Fournier, who rented ground-floor space there himself, in the late 2000s, for a gym.
He also respects Rice’s business acumen. Fournier said Rice once hired a girlfriend of his to clean his properties. “My girlfriend cleaned 20 buildings in a week and she’d have 20 different checks” for her work, said Fournier. “Every building Geoffrey owns in the city is a separate business. … That’s smart, standard business practice.”
Rice’s sole sibling, his sister Sandra Rice Sternburg, died in 2011 at age 75. Untangling the ownership history of all these buildings is no small task. Individual Rice family members (including Sandra’s late husband, Harold E. Sternburg), a slew of limited-liability companies and a variety of trusts all show up in county property records. Buried somewhere in those records may be a big clue that would help explain Geoffrey Rice’s abysmal stewardship of these buildings.
Several sources said that when Geoffrey inherited these properties from his late father, he sold one or two at a price his mother felt was too low, prompting her to place the rest of the portfolio in a trust that prevents Geoffrey from selling them during his lifetime. Mainer could not confirm this by press time, but such an arrangement could help explain why Rice hasn’t just cashed in on buildings that he doesn’t seem to personally value.
Rice and his wife, Harriet Rice, live in a huge apartment that occupies the front half of the top floor of the Trelawny Building. They have two grown children, whom they adopted. Sources who’ve been inside the Rices’ apartment say it’s full of artwork, though accounts differ as to whether the art is any good. The couple take frequent trips to Florida, France (where their daughter lives) and other locales, typically for several weeks at a stretch. They may also have real-estate holdings out of state.
S. said some of Geoffrey’s Rice art collection was taken from tenants who died with no living relatives. S. further alleges that Rice would remove food from dead tenants’ apartments and bring it upstairs for his family to eat. The apartment itself, S. said, was kept at around 60 degrees, such that Rice’s children had to wear sweaters inside during cold months.
Anecdotes about Rice’s extreme thrift are easy to come by if you ask around town: the nights he and his family would show up at a restaurant dressed in old, worn-out clothes (one source said Rice dresses like “a 1950s janitor … except obviously incapable of physically doing what a janitor does”); the time Geoffrey stormed out of a print shop, incensed that he’d have to pay a few pennies extra for a hand-composed copy.
“In anything involving money, it would be calculated to the penny,” said a former commercial tenant we’ll call R. “To us, he seemed friendly, or friendly for him,” R. continued. “He had the air of a powerful person, where there’s just a certain sort of tension they can carry around with them, but to me he seemed harmless. He was not unfair to us or harsh in the way he spoke to us or anything like that, not a Scrooge in terms of bah-humbugging in our face. But it was also clear he was not going to do a thing he didn’t want to do.”
“He’s a nice guy on a personal level,” said a Portland businessperson, Q., who’s known Rice casually for many years. “He’s aware of what goes on in the neighborhood and has something to say about it. … It’s fun to talk to him, because you know who you’re talking to, too — it’s like, yeah, this guy is just like a conniving bastard, but he’s actually kind of a cool guy.”
Sources say Rice has a law degree, with a specialty in real estate, but that he’s so averse to confrontation that he lacked the stomach to practice in a courtroom. This general observation is backed up by multiple tenants, like R., who said that when asked a question he didn’t want to answer during lease negotiations, Rice would simply ignore it.
“Geoffrey has a tendency to avoid problems and confrontation,” said a tenant we’ll call P. “If you try to bring up anything to him in person, he just instantly finds a way to turn and walk away.”
Reached by phone last month, Rice declined Mainer’s interview request. “I’m not interested in having anything written about me,” he said.
Frank O’Connor, a real-estate agent with The Dunham Group who’s long handled Rice’s commercial properties, did not return our call requesting an interview.
Getting what you paid for
Commercial tenants interviewed for this story all said the same thing about renting from Rice: the space is cheap, but you get what you pay for. Which is to say, you get space in old buildings with lots of problems, most of which you will have to fix yourself, on your own dime. When or if a maintenance worker does show up to tackle something major, they may or may not do a competent job — but again, one complains at one’s peril.
“Right now, the fact that I’m renting from a slumlord means I can actually afford my shop rent,” P. said. “The commercial real-estate market in Portland has gotten very competitive, especially because of all the weed dealers coming in, so now I kind of am lucky that I’m dealing with a slumlord,” this person added with a rueful laugh.
Rice is “just an awful landlord,” said another commercial tenant. “Trying to get him to do anything, or approve a sign or anything you need as a business, is just really hard. But the rent is why you put up with it, because the rent is fairly reasonable.”
That is, until suddenly it’s not. Numerous commercial tenants said they have a triple-net lease with Rice, which make the tenant responsible for maintenance costs, as well as the property tax and insurance for their portion of the building, in addition to the usual rent. This in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem, tenants say, if Rice applied this lease provision consistently. He does not, resulting in surprise bills in some years demanding thousands of dollars.
“Several years ago I got a bill in like, January or something, the worst time of year, for [several thousand] dollars,” one tenant said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t have this kind of money. What is this?’ So I looked into it … and it in fact does say in my lease that he can charge the triple-net stuff.” The charge had not been applied in past years, and Rice “wasn’t trying to collect on the past-due, so in a weird way I’ve kind of dodged a bullet.”
Rice has allowed some tenants to pay triple-net bills in installments. He’s also reduced or deferred rent for some commercial tenants during the pandemic and, as noted, written off past-due balances in some cases.
It’s also important to note that some tenants, residential and commercial, are perfectly happy renting from Rice (though they still don’t want to be quoted). Mainer spoke with several people who live in some of Rice’s nicer buildings, and they either had no complaints or only mild criticisms.
It’s telling that for these renters, who tend to be professionals with higher incomes than, say, the Trelawny crowd, the problems at Rice’s properties are more about style than substance. They chafe at lease provisions, like the three-minute window rule or the ban on candles, that implicitly them like children.
Tenants who have the money, or merely the chutzpah, to push back against Rice and his minions can escape when they realize they’re in a bad situation. Those lacking the same inevitably suffer.
Allison Stevens, owner of the Old Port bar and eatery The Thirsty Pig, moved into an apartment at 684 Congress St. (above Allen & Walker Antiques) in May of 2011. She rented a parking space in the adjacent lot, but when she’d get home late after working at her bar, the scene in that parking lot was so “sketchy” that male employees of a nearby restaurant would escort her each night from her car into her building for her safety.
“The trash area was sketchy, the whole place was just sketchy,” Stevens said. “There was also a severe bug infestation in the bathroom — in the sill there was thousands of these bugs. I remember complaining about that as well, and there was nothing [done]. … I eventually moved because the smoke alarm didn’t go off one night and I woke up to an apartment filled with smoke.”
Stevens said that when she called the office the next morning to complain about the smoke alarm and told them she was moving out because she was afraid to live there, “They were like, ‘You can’t move out. You can’t break your lease.’”
“I said, ‘Any further contact can go through my lawyer,’” and she split, landing a new apartment nearby in Back Bay Tower (which she said wasn’t much better). “There was no further contact” from Rice, she said.
Stevens, who was then new to town, had gotten that bug-infested death trap of an apartment, which cost about $1,400 a month, through Apartment Mart, the rental office on the ground floor of the Trelawny Building that manages Rice’s properties. Apartment Mart “gets the first-time Portlanders, just like Back Bay Tower, because their ads are everywhere, they’re wicked accessible on Craigslist, they get right back to you,” she said. Both Apartment Mart and Back Bay Tower “are terrible experiences, but they have the most, like, Google SEOs or whatever for how to find an apartment in Portland.”
“In this bar, we talk to everybody,” Stevens said during an interview at the Pig last month. “I’ve talked to tons of people that have gone through the exact same scenarios … and they’re like, ‘Oh, Geoffrey I. Rice? Yeah, I know that guy too.’”
Shawn Seaman was several rungs below Stevens on the economic ladder when he ended up in the Trelawny Building in the early 1990s — he was a laborer, not a business owner — but a similar intolerance for bullshit enabled him to stand up for himself. The cheap rent fit his bare-bones budget, and Seaman was initially thrilled with the unit he got on the fifth floor, which had sunset views of the White Mountains.
“The terrible things were, we had a terrible cockroach problem — they just overran everything at the time,” Seaman said. And “no maintenance was ever really done. I was there for 14 years, and when I moved out I still had the same shitty, green, falling-apart window shades that I had when I moved in.”
“Did you ask them to fix things?” I asked Seaman.
“Yeah,” he said. “You just never heard back. It took ’em forever to do anything anyway.”
Hollis was living at the Trelawny when Seaman got there, doing his best to keep the place clean. “He was a hard worker,” Seaman recalled. “He was a unique personality, a little slow.” The building “was kind of dirty,” Seaman said. “There was only him, though” — referring to Hollis — “so you’ve got eight floors of people tracking mud all over the floors and whatnot. It’s a wonderful old building if they’d kept up with it — kind of like a wonderful old slum building.”
Seaman also saw the cell-like spaces tenants like Hollis were living in. “They were more rooms than an apartment,” said Seaman, “because, like, I had a kitchen section; they piped in gas, so I had a gas range and a refrigerator and all. These rooms didn’t have anything. They had a bed. It was like a room at the Y, about the same size. … But they were a lot cheaper in rent.”
The fact Rice didn’t require a hefty security deposit and first and last month’s rent was also been a big reason Seaman ended up at the Trelawny. “I think it was $115 to move in — that was my damage deposit — which is one of the reasons I stayed there for 14 years,” Seaman said. “Every place else, by the time I was looking to move, it was costing like two grand, three-grand damage deposit — four months in rent to move in. I wanted to move, but it was cheap enough that I would stay. Because it wasn’t really that bad.”
Then, in the fall of 1996, Seaman lost his job at Biddeford Textile after new boss “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap slashed the workforce to please investors. Facing the prospect of needing to enroll in a general assistance program to survive, Seaman went to Rice’s office to face the music.
“I told them at the office, ‘Are you gonna have a problem if I go on GA, because the city has to send an inspector [to approve GA housing]. The place is riddled with fucking cockroaches.’ They told me, ‘Well, instead of that, why don’t you do this work for now? Cleaning apartments.’ That was like minimum-wage work. I could understand that.
“What they didn’t want was the city to inspect it and see the cockroach problem,” Seaman continued. “They’d just give me free rent, but I had a list of things I had to do — cleaning out the refrigerator, wipe the walls down, sweeping, mopping, that type of stuff. … It wasn’t unique. A lot of guys did that.”
Seaman, however, had more skills than most tenants. Regarded as one of the best stage-lighting guys in town, he could also do electrical and refrigeration work, fix boilers, and so on. The office staff noticed this and tried to exploit it. “I was getting more and more complicated jobs, but my supposed pay remained on the minimum level,” Seaman said. “Six months later, I’m repairing walls, I’m doing electrical repairs, things like that, and I said, ‘You know, I really need to make more money, because I’m doing skill-level stuff.’ The next day I was told, ‘We no longer require your services.’”
Seaman kept close track of his hours, so he wasn’t cheated in that regard. It seems Uncle Sam and the State of Maine are the ones who lost out in this off-the-books arrangement. “I’d say how many hours I spent on this job, and they’d apply that towards rent, so no money changed hands or no checks, no anything,” said Seaman.
As the years went by, Seaman felt a growing sense of entrapment and paranoia living in the Trelawny. “It’s easy to get in, but they keep raising the rent,” he said. “They find out you got a better job, and all of a sudden your rent goes up. They didn’t want you to save up enough to move out.
“You learn not to say anything around the doormen,” Seaman continued. “They did have security on the door, but it was usually other tenants that lived there, so they weren’t paid very much, and you found out really rapidly they were rats — you couldn’t tell ’em anything; it would always go to the front office.” Seaman said a casual remark he’d made to a doorman about a new, better-paying job he’d gotten promptly resulted in a rent hike.
“Why did you leave the Trelawny?” I asked Seaman.
“I couldn’t pay rent and was evicted,” he said. “I was working in industry, and as these industries would shut down, it would be getting harder and harder to get a job.”
But even eviction couldn’t fully remove Rice’s claws from Seaman’s hide, because he left owing back rent. “My beef with this is that they still run this [back rent] on their books as though it was a loan,” Seaman told me. “So if I was to move back into one of his properties, I’d have to repay this immense amount of money, because they’re running a percentage [of interest] on it as though it was a loan.”
It’s been a decade and a half since Seaman was evicted. Incredulous, I pressed the point: “So they still consider that you owe this rent?”
“Of course,” Seaman said. “You owe ’em till you die, I guess.”
Seaman’s take on Rice as a person was similar to that of Q., the downtown business owner. “When you meet him and talk to him, he’s very pleasant and charming,” Seaman said. “Of course, so was Dr. Mengele. He’s a merciless fucking slumlord, and still is.”
Which brings us back to Hollis.
Hollis lacked both money and the chutzpah to stand up to Rice and his minions. It took Robbins, the Salt student, only a minute to recognize that Hollis was both extremely hard-working and extremely eager to please — to show someone, anyone, that he was doing a good job. Rice and his staff absolutely knew this, and took full advantage.
Hollis respected Rice, bragged about him, even, said T., his good friend. “You know, he’s a real-estate attorney,” Hollis would say. “He ain’t poor. He ain’t poor.”
“He was very street-smart, and he would never have, like, tattled on Geoffrey,” T. said. “That’s why I kind of feel like with Hollis’ situation it was more of almost like a predatory thing. It’s like you’ve got this guy, you know he’s probably intimidated by you and you know how to pull his strings.
“It would be like, if Hollis was here, how hard would it be for me to get him to shovel the sidewalk?” T. continued. “He wanted to do it anyways, and I would compensate him for it, but if you were intelligent you could figure out how you could get him to do it for nothing.”
Hollis knew what his work-for-rent arrangement with Rice entailed and what it didn’t, but it was not in his nature to challenge authority. “He was upset because his deal was what he was supposed to be doing for his rent, and there were some other things that were kind of tacked on,” T. said. “But he didn’t want to upset anybody.”
“If there was a really windy storm,” T. recalled, “I guess windows would frequently fall out of the Trelawny Building, and so he was tasked with going to sweep them up. Somebody would wake him up and send him out. Or if there was something nobody else wanted to clean up — like maybe a resident threw up in the elevator or something like that — he would get woken up to go do that.”
S., the source once close to Rice, provided another example of this abuse. “There were a couple guys renting an apartment and Geoff had pissed them off for some reason, probably evicting them or whatever,” S. said. “So while they were living out their rent … every time they took a dump they would shit right on top of the tank. I looked in the room; I had never seen anything like it. It was like a volcano. They must’ve had a ladder or something to do it, but they must have really been pissed, and Hollis had to clean that up.”
“Maybe Geoffrey didn’t know about that [extra work],” T. ventured. “Maybe it kind of just went down the pecking order. … If you knew how to push Hollis’ buttons, you could say, ‘I’m gonna tell Geoffrey you didn’t do it,’ or they might say, ‘Geoffrey wants you to do this.’ Maybe it didn’t come directly from Geoffrey, but that’s how it seemed like it ran over there, kind of a fear-based type of thing.”
T. said Hollis was evicted in 2013 or 2014 with only about seven days’ notice to vacate, and he didn’t tell anyone until the night of the sixth day. “I think he was tricked somehow into signing a form that basically said he was going to vacate,” said T. “I recall that maybe they had some money for him, and in order to get the money he had to sign the form,” T. added. “He didn’t realize what he was signing.”
S. said the same thing, and claims Rice evicted Hollis to upgrade the room into an actual apartment in order to collect real rent. Seaman said the transformation of the single-room-occupancy units at the Trelawny into full apartments had been an ongoing project during his last years there. And sure enough, the unit Hollis occupied, number 601, is now an actual apartment with a rent, as of 2018, of $810 a month, according to internal documents leaked to Mainer.
“I knew where Hollis lived, but he didn’t like anybody coming to his place,” T. said. When T. finally saw his living conditions on move-out day, they and another friend helping Hollis were floored. “He’d been living like a caveman,” said T. “He may have not had power for like eight or nine years there.” Any lights or electronics were battery-operated, like the cassette boom boxes Hollis used to listen to his favorite music, classical piano, and make mix tapes of the same for friends.
The toilet down the hall that Hollis was supposed to use had been broken for God-knows-how-many months or years. He’d spread newspaper on the floor of his room to take care of his business. A painter subsequently found a big jug of urine in a corner. The painter told S. that Hollis’ sad mattress was wet to the touch with sweat.
“He was really embarrassed about it,” T. said of Hollis, “because he’s the type of person that had so much pride, and for people to be discovering that that’s how he was being treated was worse for him than anybody — like, he would have almost preferred nobody find out than Geoffrey get a bad name for himself. Because I think he really respected Geoffrey, and I know that he had a pretty good relationship with his mother.”
“For somebody who endured that much, and how positive he was, and how much joy he spread around, it was kind of shocking that somebody [would treat him so badly],” T. added. “In this case, he’s probably joyfully cleaning up other people’s messes, and just happy as a clam that he has a place to go at night where he gets to eat peanut-butter cookies.”
Another friend of Hollis’, a woman of means in the West End whom he’d helped in the past, was likewise appalled by what Rice had done. (Per her request, we are not revealing her name.) She brought Hollis to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income renters, where his case was handled by attorney Anne Carney.
The wage violation Rice committed by failing to document Hollis’ hours was “the easiest case to be made,” T. said. So rather than engage Rice in a lengthy and expensive legal battle, Carney settled for about five grand — ostensibly for the wage violation, “but it was really in lieu of what had happened to him over there,” said T.
Carney arranged for Hollis to get the money in installments, so the full sum would not make Hollis ineligible for government benefits. He’d never needed to be on the dole before Rice evicted him, but he was suddenly both homeless and unemployed. Hollis was able to secure a real apartment through another nonprofit, Shalom House, and during his final years T. said his appearance and health noticeably improved.
In a voice-mail message left in response to Mainer’s inquiry about Hollis’ case and the practices of landlords like Rice more generally, Carney, who’s now a Democratic State Senator representing Cape Elizabeth, said she cannot “provide any information related to representing any particular client.” Furthermore, Sen. Carney added, “I don’t have any current information that would be within the scope of kind of a more general question about landlords who are doing business in Portland. So I’m sorry I can’t help you and I hope you have a good day. Thank you. Bye.”
As Sen. Carney’s comment reveals, even a politician with first-hand knowledge of the horrors Rice has visited upon his tenants is unwilling to say a word against him. That’s why renters in the Trelawny Building and other Rice properties are now organizing to fight back.
Among the residents leading the new Trelawny Tenants’ Union is former State Senator and Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, who’s rented an apartment on the sixth floor of the Trelawny Building since March of 2016, paying a rent (as of 2018) of less than $1,000. Strimling also declined to discuss Rice or more general landlord issues with Mainer, but he did connect us with TTU leader Wes Pelletier.
In the spring of 2020, as the pandemic raged through Maine, Pelletier, who’s active in the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, put up flyers in the Trelawny Building encouraging residents to join a private Discord online chat channel to discuss their grievances and concerns. In June of last year, Pelletier said the TTU gathered nearly 50 signatures from Apartment Mart tenants for a letter sent to Rice challenging his refusal to renew leases — a move they suspected was an attempt to get around the new city ordinance preventing big rent hikes when leases are renewed.
This past spring, Rice’s tenants received a letter warning them to expect a 10 percent rent increase on Nov. 1 of this year, in violation of the city ordinance that requires rents to be maintained at June 2020 levels until 2022. The TTU filed a formal complaint with the Portland Housing Safety Office, and in July the union announced that the office had ordered Rice to rescind the rent increase.
Efforts by the TTU to get Rice to comply with other aspects of Portland’s new tenant-protection laws, like registering all his units with the city and informing tenants of their rights, are ongoing. As usual, the bureaucrats in City Hall are hapless to bring Rice to heel.
For example, last month the TTU sent an e-mail to Zachary Lenhert, the city’s Licensing and Housing Safety Manager, asking if Rice had complied with the requirement to register all his units, including each apartment’s June 2020 rent. “Collecting this data city wide [sic] has been onerous for our office,” Lenhert replied via an e-mail shared with Mainer. “Our licensing/registration software was not set-up [sic] to collect this data. We have had difficulty matching landlord submissions of base rent with current registrations.”
Furthermore, Lenhert acknowledged, “We do not know every LLC that Mr. Rice is associated with. We would need specific addresses or other identifying information (such as the LLC) to provide that information.”
The TTU also pressed Lenhert to explain why his office had not imposed financial penalties for Rice’s failure to comply with the city’s new requirements. “Our office can issue penalties, but at this point we are choosing not to pursue them,” Lenhert replied via e-mail. “We appreciate your concern, but this is within our office’s discretion.”
“It’s been like pulling teeth to get [the city] to proactively be looking into Rice’s other buildings,” Pelletier said. But while city leaders fiddle among the proverbial flames, the TTU continues to pressure Rice directly.
Rice met with the group three times early on to hear their complaints, and agreed not to evict anyone while discussions continued, but has since refused to meet with the group again. So last month they sent him another letter, this one with a long list of demands, including the removal of fines for violation of the three-minute window rule, the rescinding of the lease’s ban on alcohol consumption and marijuana use at the Trelawny, pay increases for building staff, and changes to the pet policy — 13 items in all.
The response they received, in an e-mail with a header listing yet another LLC (this one called, bizarrely, “TRYLAWNY 657”), was typically blunt. Most of the responses were simply “No.” Regarding the window rule, the response was: “No. Those too hot must make a written request to the office.” The one demand Rice’s team agreed to meet was to laminate and post the city’s new renters’ rights document in all his buildings, though it’s unclear whether this has actually been done.
The Trelawny’s transition from a flophouse into a proper apartment building has come with an influx of socially conscious tenants who refuse to be cowed by Rice. “There’s a strong sense of community in the building,” Pelletier said. “Seems like it’s a very young crowd, people who work on the peninsula in restaurants.” Residents of four other Rice properties are also active in the TTU these days.
Pelletier said the TTU hopes to include renters in all of Rice’s buildings, and eventually make the tenants-union movement citywide. “It’s not just fighting your landlord,” he said. “It’s also getting someone to watch your cat or let you know if the Internet is down or if it’s just your connection.”
Given the very real threat that Rice will evict tenants who speak out or try to jack up their rent, just getting people to put their name on a letter to him was a major accomplishment. I asked Pelletier, who lives at the Trelawny with his wife, if he worried his activism could lead to his own eviction.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I have seen a little bit of some people mentioning, ‘Oh, your name was on that letter.’” But, Pelletier added with confidence, “I am down to fight that battle.”
As Hollis would say, feel that.
*CORRECTION: In the original version of this story, we incorrectly stated that 612 Congress St. is part of the series of contiguous properties Rice owns here; in fact, he owns the parking lot associated with that address, but not the building itself.