Portland landlords, immigrant renters seek understanding
PORTLAND — Organizers hope a meeting Thursday will take a big step toward improving the relationship between landlords and immigrants.
The gathering at King Middle School from 4:30-6:30 p.m. will include Mayor Michael Brennan, Regina Phillips of Refugee Services, Housing and Neighborhood Services Director Mary Davis, members of the immigrant communities, and local landlords in an effort to improve communications and outline rights and responsibilities for all sides.
The first-of-its-kind meeting will have sessions on leases, problems including bedbugs, and legal rights in evictions. But mostly, it will be an attempt to strip away misconceptions and even fears landlords and immigrant tenants may have about each other.
"(Immigrants) see a landlord as somebody with a lot of power, possibly a lot of power over them, and that can lead to a communication breakdown," Phillips said.
A booklet has also been written as a primer for new residents about living in Portland. It goes beyond leases and rentals to cover basics like banking and other services.
Carleton Winslow, who has rented Portland properties for more than 40 years, is vice president of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association and a member of the board of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. He said he hopes the meeting will produce new perspectives for landlords and tenants.
“Hopefully, we can open some eyes,” he said last week.
In the last 15 years, according to Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners, first Pine Tree Legal Assistance and then Maine Equal Justice Partners have worked with immigrants, especially from African nations and more recently from the Middle East.
In her remarks to City Councilors last month, School Board Chairwoman Sarah J. Thompson noted the influx means about 1,700 English language learners speak about 60 native languages or dialects.
Leases can provide a primary language obstacle, Avesta Housing property manager Georges Budagu said, because they are complex documents presented to people with limited English skills who are not used to such formal arrangements for housing. Budagu in 1994 fled the Republic of Congo, where housing was a verbal agreement.
“You have to find a room before anything else. You have to think about where you are going to sleep,” he said.
Winslow said leases are more complex because of laws and regulations, and agreed with Phillips that immigrants can be wary of landlords.
“They may be a bit timid to call the landlord with a problem because they are afraid they will get thrown out,” he said.
Sonia Irambona, 30, arrived in Portland about 11 months ago and is seeking asylum from her native African country of Burundi. In Portland, she is working to form the New Mainers Tenant Association, not only to help protect immigrants, but to educate them on legal rights landlords do have.
“My feeling is new Mainers should be able to talk for themselves,” she said.
Her fluency in English has made her trusted in the immigrant community, but she said renters also fail to understand landlords' rights, including the ability to withhold security deposits.
Asylum seekers differ from refugees, as they are ineligible for almost any kind of state and federal assistance until they can get needed papers to work or are granted asylum status.
"Most of the time you don't know anyone, so you don't have a way to get a (security) deposit," Irambona said. Providing a credit history or references to landlords is difficult or impossible right after arrival.
Catholic Charities of Maine also assists refugees arriving in Portland and Lewiston with a variety of services and financial assistance. But Alain Nahimana, Maine People's Alliance immigrant rights and racial justice organizer, said the cultural barriers still create misunderstandings.
He recalled an immigrant family mourning the death of a family member with week-long evening gatherings. Eventually police were called, causing visitors to hide throughout the apartment.
Irambona said tenants can fear evictions without understanding it requires a court order and can be a costly process for landlords and tenants.
"I think the rights will be the key to it," she said. "Understanding where we are coming from and headed to."