Portland Housing Committee proposals get mixed reviews

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PORTLAND — A package of five policy items dealing with “housing insecurity” is expected to be introduced to the City Council on Oct. 17. 

The package was endorsed by the five-member Housing Committee Sept. 28, with Councilor Spencer Thibodeau opposed.

The policies do not fundamentally change lease terms or add rent controls, and was criticized during a 15-minute public hearing.

“I am flabbergasted this is all that has been proposed,” Brackett Street resident Joey Brunelle said. “It is barely more than nothing and a lot of these items are basically nothing.”

The forwarded policy items include extending the notice for rent increases from 45 to 75 days and requiring landlords and tenants to sign documents detailing at-will tenancies.

Also in the package are drafting a leaflet explaining tenant and landlord rights; a committee of tenants and landlords to review the rental and tenant/landlord issues; and adding existing language from the Maine Human Rights Act banning discrimination on sources of income for housing rentals.

“We hope to end this meeting with a foundation of recommendations to make to the full council,” the committee chairwoman, Councilor Jill Duson, said.

Committee members did not forward an ordinance proposed by Mayor Ethan Strimling that would have eliminated at-will tenancies in favor of a one-year base lease that could have been negotiated for a briefer time.

Strimling’s proposal would have also required a 90-day notice for landlords and tenants to terminate a lease, unless a shorter notice period was agreed on by the parties, and a 90-day notice on rental increases.

Landlords with buildings in violation of city codes would not have been allowed to raise rents at any of their buildings, and Strimling also proposed requiring landlords to accept housing vouchers.

Vouchers such as those provided by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development cannot be rejected as a source of rent by state law, but landlords are not compelled to rent to voucher-holders.

“There are hundreds of units that are off limits to people with vouchers because the landlord won’t rent to them. It is de facto discrimination,” Strimling said.

A proposal from Councilor Jon Hinck to provide more relocation funds to low-income tenants affected by mass evictions will be studied more by the committee.

Thibodeau’s “Leeway” proposal was not endorsed, either. It also required a 90-day notice for evictions of at-will tenants. The notification period could be decreased if landlords paid a maximum of $1,000 to tenants.

Thibodeau supported creating a city ombudsman’s post to oversee the payment program, work with landlords and tenants, and provide nonbinding dispute mediation.

City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta has cautioned the committee that new city laws superseding state laws could face legal challenges.

In a memo to committee members, West-Chuhta divided proposed policy items into “most likely legal,” “maybe legal” and “most likely not legal” categories.

Some rent controls, mediation programs and banning discrimination on income sources were viewed as most likely legal. Extra notice for at-will evictions and rent increases, requiring voucher acceptance and aiding displaced tenants might pass court challenges, but would need separate city enforcment.

Eliminating at-will leases; preventing private rights of action by landlords for evictions; or circumventing the complaint process to the Maine Human Rights Commission was viewed most likely not legal.

Longtime landlord Carleton Winslow suggested the landlord-tenant commission have an odd number of members to prevent voting ties. The committee agreed to add an impartial city resident to  cast any tie-breaking votes.

Franklin Towers resident Louis Salvato remained disappointed with the committee’s work.

“After all these months of meetings, you come up with a 1 ½-page proposal that does not amount to a hill of beans,”  he said.

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.