Portland coalition seeks changes on behalf of renters

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PORTLAND — A coalition is pressing city councilors for reforms to help tenants.

Tom MacMillan and the new Portland Coalition for Housing Justice will present a list of six reforms to the council Housing Committee at its Wednesday April 27 meeting in City Hall at 5:30 p.m.

“I think it will affect all income tenants,” MacMillan, the former city Green Independent Committee chairman, said Tuesday.

The demands include a moratorium on no-cause evictions, freezing rents or severely restricting rent increases, and ending discrimination against renters who use housing vouchers.

Also on the list are increases in rental caps for General Assistance vouchers, amending the city housing replacement ordinance to ensure affordable housing stock is not lost, and fully funding the city rental assistance program to help prevent evictions.

On April 15, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin announced City Manager Jon Jennings had added $25,000 to the Tenant Based Rental Assistance program, which assists low-income tenants.

The TBRA was established in 2013 with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The $25,000 is unused HUD funding from another program, Grondin said.

“It is a little bit deceptive; the increase is not new money,” MacMillan said. “It is reallocating money that was going to be unused.”

The list of demands is not entirely new, either. Ending no-cause evictions, rent control, and housing rights were centerpieces of MacMillan’s mayoral campaign last fall, when he finished behind Mayor Ethan Strimling and former Mayor Michael Brennan.

What is new is the scope of people stepping forward with the demands. The coalition includes members of Portland Tenants Union, Homeless Voices for Justice, Preble Street, Opportunity Alliance, Catholic Charities and Shalom House.

“Everyone is committed to using our collective energies,” MacMillan said. “I am feeling very hopeful. We all bring very different strengths and missions, and are unified on the list of demands.”

In the short term, MacMillan said he hopes councilors will act as those in Oakland, California, did earlier this month, when they passed a 90-day moratorium on no-cause evictions and rent increases above 1 percent.

“They have to go together, one does not work without the other,” MacMillan said.

He said he was happy the Housing Committee, led by Councilor Jill Duson after it was created by Strimling in December 2015, has held a series of meetings to focus on the housing crunch.

“Much, much more is needed. We are concerned about action, not words,” MacMillan said.

A proposal to set aside housing units for homeless people in projects receiving tax increment financing for affordable housing projects or HUD funding is a start, but MacMillan said the requirement should be made for all developers getting housing TIFs.

He also called for increasing the cap on GA vouchers because market conditions are inflated.

“It is grossly inadequate right now,” MacMillan said. “We spend so much time getting people rental assistance, but with the market as it is, it is still not helping.”

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

Tom MacMillan of the Portland Coalition for Housing Justice said April 19 he hopes the coalition will bring a renewed focus by the City Council on the issues of eviction  and increasing rents.

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.