Portland councilors urged not to prohibit no-cause evictions

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PORTLAND — The City Council Housing Committee will take the rest of the month off, but promised to return in August with targeted agendas to deal with the housing crunch.

The decision not to meet again this mongh came at the end of the July 13 meeting, where committee members finished discussing a list of possible actions to deal with housing shortages and tenant security.

After not taking public comment last week, Councilor Jill Duson, the committee chairwoman, said the public will be invited to speak at upcoming meetings.

The committee first heard from city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta, who had been asked to research whether the city could impose rent controls, prohibit no-cause evictions, or require more notification of rent increases or lease terminations.

West-Chuhta said the city may have the “home-rule” authority to take action regarding evictions because state law does not specifically prohibit it, but it would be unique.

“I did not find anyone else in the state of Maine regulating (evictions),” she said.

New local rules, including more notice for evictions, would require local enforcement, since state law already sets seven- and 30-day notice requirements for evictions with or without cause for tenants without leases. Local enforcement could, however, include civil fines, West-Chuhta said.

“Of the three areas, the moratorium concerned me the most,” West-Chuhta said, because there would be a more direct conflict with state law than by changing notification rules.

“While it appears permissible to increase the period of notice required to terminate a tenancy at will, completely prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants without cause does not (seem permissible),” West-Chuhta said in a memo to the committee.

Following West-Chuhta’s comments, city Housing Planner Tyler Norod continued his comments on potential policy items for the committee. The items were those highlighted at a May 25 committee forum at the University of Southern Maine and by city Planning Department staff, and were discussed by Norod on June 22.

Norod said the city already has a temporary policy on selling tax-acquired properties that requires the proceeds to benefit the Housing Trust Fund. The policy may not affect much, however. 

“Sales are rare and unlikely to provide a significant source of revenue,” he said.

Norod said a suggestion to work with Habitat for Humanity to convert tax-acquired homes into affordable housing may not pan out either, because most acquisitions for delinquent taxes involve single-family homes that may not be suited to conversions.

Councilors and Norod agreed a proposed program that would allow the city to lease its land to developers of affordable housing is impractical, because banks would not have an asset to acquire in the event of a default.

“Why would anyone continue to develop a property if it is owned by the city?” Councilor David Brenerman asked about ground leases.

Committee members agreed the question of converting housing into short-term rentals needs more review, likely as a focus of future committee meetings.

Councilors Belinda Ray and Nick Mavodones Jr. said they would not want to halt short-term room or apartment rentals in owner-occupied buildings.

“My real interest is, units are not being taken off the market for pure profit,” Ray said.

Zoning changes to generate off-peninsula housing are a committee focus, even as the city Planning Department looks to present a revised Comprehensive Plan this fall.

Brenerman suggested the city try zoning revisions in a specific area, such as Morrill’s Corner.

The site of the former Wok Inn restaurant, where Forest, Stevens and Allen avenues converge, could become high-density housing close to public transportation and show how zoning changes could help the rest of the city, he said.

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

Portland City Councilor David Brenerman said Morrill’s Corner, seen July 14, is a place where zoning changes could boost housing development.

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.