Portland Housing Committee to focus on tenant security

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PORTLAND — “Housing insecurity” will be the topic Wednesday, Aug. 24, when the City Council Housing Committee meets at 5:30 p.m. in City Hall.

Yet advocates of several measures designed to protect renters, especially those without leases or using federal housing vouchers, may find the policies they support will not pass muster with city officials.

The committee, led by Councilor Jill Duson, will renew discussions on rent control, notification requirements on rent increases and lease terminations, as well as prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders. Some discussion will revolve around ordinances suggested by Mayor Ethan Strimling and Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jon Hinck.

Memos in response from city Housing Planner Tyler Norod indicate the proposed policies and ordinances may face practical, economic and legal challenges if implemented.

Strimling’s “Rental Housing Security Ordinance” bundles prohibiting discrimination against tenants with vouchers such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 8 assistance with more lead time to  notify tenants about rent increases and lease terminations. It also proposes limiting rental increases to once a year and prohibiting rent increases in buildings where the city finds code violations.

Strimling’s proposals echo demands made two months ago by the Portland Coalition for Housing Justice, but the mayor acknowledged his proposal would not solve the city housing crisis.

“I do feel, however, that the attached proposal can be a step forward as the committee moves towards recommending timely and achievable solutions to the full Council for discussion and action,” Strimling said in a July 13 memo.

In an Aug. 19 memo, Norod noted banning rent increases over code violations that might occur in other buildings owned by a landlord could present enforcement issues and that some violations, such as smoke detectors being removed, are caused by tenants.

Those violations can be remedied within a reasonable amount of time, and the city already has mechanisms to require landlords to correct violations, Norod said.

Regarding housing vouchers, Norod and city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta have noted HUD rules do not require landlords to accept them, and state law already bars landlords from using income sources as a basis for renting.

However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has determined that the Maine Human Rights Act does not require landlords to accept housing vouchers so long as the discrimination is not intentional.

Norod also noted that, by requiring landlords to accept vouchers, they would also be required to comply with “all associated inspections, mandated repairs, terms, contracts, paperwork, addendums, etc. that may be part of vouchers or other forms of housing subsidies.”

In an Aug. 18 memo, West-Chuhta said Strimling’s proposal to require all tenants to have one-year “constructive leases” would be in conflict with the state law that allows “at-will,” or non-lease rentals.

Hinck has proposed a “Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance,” patterned after one enacted in Seattle that would provide funds to families earning 50 percent or less of the area median income affected by building demolitions, “substantial rehabilitation or alterations” or changes of use.

In Seattle, the assistance payments are capped at $3,500 and paid in an even split by the city and landlord. Median income qualifications in Portland would range from $26,000 to $38,000, depending on family size.

Norod said the city already provides vouchers to families earning 30 percent of the AMI, with $130,000 budgeted this year. He added finding more city funding could be a challenge, and suggested the ordinance could have a consequence of landlords deciding not to rent to tenants within those income guidelines.

Thibodeau’s “Leeway Program” would require landlords to give a 90-day eviction notice, but reducing the time to 30 days by paying a fee to help with moving costs would be in conflict with state eviction laws, Norod said. That would mean a landlord who did not give 90 days notice could only face a local civil penalty.

Duson has been a proponent of forming a mediation board for tenants and landlords that could keep cases from ending up in court. Norod estimated a new position to administer the mediation program would cost more than $50,000, including salary and benefits. He suggested the city could work with the Opportunity Alliance or Maine Association of Mediators to establish a program.

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

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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.