Portland group seeks to stabilize city rents

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PORTLAND — Emphasizing a difference between “rent stabilization” and “rent control,” a local group has launched a drive to cap housing rent increases.

The specific ordinance revisions sought by Fair Rent Portland were still undergoing legal review on Tuesday, group steering committee member Zack Anchors said Tuesday.

Anchors expects to begin collecting signatures in mid-June to get a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot. At least 1,500 signatures of registered voters are needed to get the petition to the polls.

“The most direct benefits of this ordinance would go to the renters who are most at risk of being pushed out of the city as it becomes increasingly unaffordable,” Fair Rent Portland member Bre Chamberlain said in a May 26 press release.

The proposed ordinance would allow annual rent increases, but cap them at no higher rate than the increase in the U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Price Index for Portland. Typically, that is around 2 percent, while local rents are estimated to have increased 40 percent over the last five years.

Chamberlain said she is one of those forced from the city because of increased rents.

Because the proposed ordinance does not cap specific rents and will not apply to housing when it changes hands, Fair Rent Portland members said it also allows landlords to continue to profit.

The proposed ordinance would not apply to residents who rent without a lease and exempt owner-occupied buildings, attachment or “in-law” units at single-family homes, and government-subsidized housing.

Fair Rent Portland members said they modeled the proposed ordinance after one enacted 32 years ago in West Hollywood, California.

A similar Rental Housing Act was enacted in Washington, D.C., in 1985. It caps rent increases at no more than 2 percent higher than increases in the CPI, and no more than 10 percent annually. The law exempts housing built after 1975, and does not apply to tenants moving into a vacated unit.

The Fair Rent Portland proposal would also require owners to automatically offer lease renewals to tenants and allow evictions only for specified reasons, such as property damage, failure to pay rent or harassment of other tenants.

The proposed ordinance would create a tenant/landlord board to establish the allowable annual rent increase, settle disputes, and act on exemption requests by landlords who have invested in repairs or improvements that cannot be recovered through the allowable rent increases. Any increase above the CPI would still be capped at 10 percent of the existing rent.

Fair Rent Portland said rent stabilization is needed “until the market cools,” but Southern Maine Landlord Association President Brit Vitalius on May 26 said there is already evidence it is cooling.

“All indications are, rents are plateauing and the rental market has flattened out,” he said, noting the City Council has already taken measures to help stabilize housing.

Rental supply has increased in the last year, including the conversion of the former Schlotterbeck-Foss building on Preble Street into more than 50 apartments and construction of The Hiawatha, a 139-unit building at 667 Congress St., Vitalius said.

“We do need more housing to maintain a diverse vibrant city we all love, but we don’t get it by trying to freeze the market,” he said. “What will drive Portland into a new phase is new growth and development.”

Fair Rent Portland member Ana Lagunez had an opposite view.

“This ordinance will keep our community and housing market stable while the city engages with longer term solutions – zoning codes, inclusionary zoning, transportation infrastructure – that will support more middle-class and workforce housing,” she said in the press release.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. 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.