Petition drive begins for Portland rent stabilization law

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PORTLAND —A rent stabilization effort is moving forward with a petition drive for a November voter referendum.

“I think we put together a really wonderful ordinance,” drive organizer Jack O’Brien said Tuesday. “It is really carefully adapted to the context of Portland and Maine.”

O’Brien is a member of the Fair Rent Portland steering committee and helped draft the text to amend Chapter 6 of the City Code that would place caps on annual rental increases some landlords could implement for existing units with tenants who have leases or rent at will.

The petition requires at least 1,500 signatures from registered voters to be placed on the Nov. 7 ballot. O’Brien said at least 600 signatures have been gathered since last week, and he thinks there could be 200 more.

Fair Rent Portland would like to gather at least 2,500 signatures to submit to City Clerk Katherine Jones by Aug. 7. City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said a referendum date won’t be determined until petitions have been verified.

The referendum would ask voters to approve limiting rent increases to the increase in the local Consumer Price Index measured by the U.S. Department of Labor. Landlords would also be allowed to raise rents if the city property tax increases, and could obtain waivers for increases linked to renovations or upgrades to apartments. The rent increase regulations would apply to landlords who own more than five units.

The waivers would be decided by a seven-member rent board.

The regulations would exempt rental units owned by municipal and nonprofit housing agencies; school dormitories; units owned by hospitals, convents, churches, religious facilities, or extended-care facilities; accessory dwelling units; buildings with no more than three designated rental units where the owner is also a resident, and rental units built on or after Jan. 1, 2018.

O’Brien said the key to rent stabilization comes in requiring all covered rental units to be registered with the city, with rents as of Jan. 1, 2018, becoming the “base rent.”

By Sept. 1 each year, the city Housing Safety Office will determine the allowable percentage for rent increases using the CPI and tax rate increases. Landlords who had not raised rents in prior years could use a “banked rent,” but no rents could be increased by more than 10 percent annually. Tenants facing rent increases must be given 75 days’ written notice.

Some of the ordinance changes restate Maine and city laws and regulations, especially in clarifying eviction procedures and reasons.

“A lot of this is on the books; it is not changing,” O’Brien said.

The rent board could not block evictions, but could penalize landlords.

“We believe the rent board still has the tools to enforce civil behavior: it may impose significant penalties on a landlord after an illegal eviction has occurred, which is much more oversight than currently exists,” O’Brien said.

By exempting new construction, O’Brien said the intent is to defuse any argument rent stabilization will stop development. Fair Rent Portland also wants to ensure landlords affected by the ordinance can still make profits.

“Many landlords felt that inflation as reflected in the regional CPI did not relate to their industry-specific costs, precisely because of the changes in the property tax rate,” O’Brien said. “Tax rates may well increase again and we wanted to make sure that landlords would be assured of a reasonable accommodation.”

The intent of stability is economic and social, O’Brein added.

“Our goal in the Fair Rent campaign is to create a system that not only allows renters security and stability, but also ensures that landlords can make a reasonable return on their investment.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.