PORTLAND — Housing activists want city councilors to act quickly on several policy issues to stem the tide of evictions and provide more affordable homes.
“We would like the city to treat the situation as the emergency it is,” Jim Devine of Homeless Voices for Justice pleaded at the outset of the public comment portion of the Monday’s City Council meeting.
In a meeting that lasted nearly four hours, housing issues were deemed most important by public speakers – yet drew no council action because the proposals by the Portland Coalition for Housing Justice were not on the agenda.
Following a demonstration outside City Hall, coalition members and supporters for an hour asked councilors to place an immediate ban on no-cause evictions, enact an “immediate freeze or significant limitation on rent increases,” and end discrimination against renters who use subsidized housing vouchers.
Further, the coalition would like to see the cap on General Assistance rental vouchers increased, full funding for the city’s Tenant Based Rental Assistance program and revisions to the housing replacement ordinance to prevent the loss of affordable housing units.
The coalition consists of the Portland Tenants Union, Homeless Voices for Justice, Preble Street, and Shalom House, and councilors heard from people most directly affected by the dearth of affordable housing.
Caroline Silvius, a resident of Florence House on Valley Street, pleaded for rent controls “to prevent the spiraling rents now occurring in Portland.”
Shalom House Housing Director Norman said the nonprofits’ clients are getting displaced by evictions, and finding new homes for them is increasingly difficult.
“One (thing) very near and dear to my heart is to end discrimination against voucher holders,” Maze said.
After describing his own struggles to get stable housing, Thomas Ptacek of Preble Street said he was not alone.
“In reality, every renter in the city should be in fear,” he said.
When councilors got down to their scheduled business, the appointment of Christopher Branch as director of the Public Works Department was approved as an emergency measure so he could begin work Tuesday.
In a June 3 interview, Branch described himself as “a public works kind of guy, and I think I do it well.”
City Manager Jon Jennings agreed.
“He is straight from central casting, a no-nonsense leader and director,” Jennings said.
Branch comes to the post after a 12-year hiatus from the public sector and six years as a regional manager the Sebago Technics, an engineering firm with offices in South Portland and Lewiston.
Sebago Technics works in the public and private sectors, but Branch said overseeing municipal public works operations is more his passion.
“I enjoy the work a lot and the reasons why you do the work,” he said.
Branch replaces interim Director Robert Leeman, who stepped in when former Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky resigned last fall. Jennings praised Leeman for his guidance and planning.
“Now I think we have a really top-notch plan. Chris will move forward, but a lot of the hard work and decisions were made by Bob Leeman and his team,” Jennings said.
Jennings has made reshaping the department a priority in several ways.
“I have always believed Public Works is as important as any department in the city,” he said. “There are so many things the department does and does very well, so to reinvest is a major priority.”
More spending for street and sidewalk maintenance and repairs, improving the fleet of vehicles and shifting Public Works officers and operations from Bayside to Canco Road are underway.
On Monday, June 13, Jennings will present suggestions for modernizing the city’s solid waste collections, including making a request for proposals that could shift the duties to a private company.
“I’m still interested in keeping current staff and modernizing equipment and processes,” Jennings said.
Branch, who will be paid $112,500, said the core responsibility for Public Works remains the same.
“The real purpose of public works in Maine is to take care of snow removal operations,” he said. “The goal is to be top shelf there and to to be top shelf in providing the basic services.”
Branch said finding more funding sources for operations will be a priority as well.
“I think I had a reputation in Lewiston as somebody who could maximize all the funding resources,” he said.
Jennings agreed the city needs to work harder in securing other revenue.
“We are going to get much more aggressive in looking at all areas of revenue, particularly in federal dollars,” he said.