Portland city councilors hear calls for rent control

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PORTLAND — Renters called for more regulations to ease the dearth of affordable housing at the City Council Housing Committee’s second meeting Feb. 10.

“The free market is not going to ensure that Portland maintains its unique characteristics and charm or provide enough affordable housing for everyone,” former mayoral candidate Tom MacMillan said.

MacMillan, who also leads the Portland Tenants Union, was one of seven speakers invited to address the committee, chaired by Councilor Jill Duson. There was also about 45 minutes of public comment, during which several speakers echoed MacMillan’s frustrations about rising rents.

Other invited speakers, including Maine State Housing Authority Deputy Director Peter Merrill and Aaron Shapiro, director of Cumberland County Community Development, said the committee must be aware that other communities also face housing problems and take a more regional approach to solving the shortage.

“Are you alone in this problem or not? The answer is not,” Merrill said. “Rockland has just as miserable a rental problem as Portland does.”

The committee was also urged to take a close look at ways to ensure the city’s elderly can keep their homes.

“How do we create in Portland a community that supports aging in place?,” Larry Gross, Southern Maine Agency on Aging executive director, said.

Noting city rents increased 17 percent on average last year, MacMillan called for the city to establish a “tenant ombudsman” to assist tenants and to enact rent control measures. He cited a 2015 Greater Portland Council of Governments housing study that called rent control a “temporary breather.”

“What Portland faces is rapid gentrification,” MacMillan said. “What it means is people are being pushed to the margins of Portland.”

Also invited to speak was Katie McGovern, a Pine Tree Legal Assistance attorney who specializes in tenant rights and helps contest evictions.

McGovern suggested rent increases should be capped at increases in the Consumer Price Index, and landlords should be prohibited from refusing to rent to tenants with Section 8 housing vouchers funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Keith Costello, who said he has lived in the Portland area for about a decade, said “Just the term ‘landlord,’ it is archaic and it is feudal.”

Local real estate broker Beth Angle took a different view, saying city policies like a stormwater fee and increasing property taxes make it even more difficult for property owners to make a living.

“With a three-bedroom unit, you are lucky if you break even,” Angle said. “Landlords don’t want to raise the rents. (But) how do they pass on these fees if they don’t raise the rents?”

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

Portland resident Len Freeman urges city councilors to consider the needs of senior citizens during a meeting of the City Council Housing Committee Feb. 10.

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.