Portland mayor pushes far-reaching rules for rental housing

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PORTLAND — The Housing Committee should be ready to move some recommendations to the full City Council next month, Councilor Jill Duson said Monday.

“I look forward to making some decisions at the next meeting,” Duson said about the meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sept. 14 at City Hall.

Her comments came days after the Aug. 24 committee meeting, where three possible ordinances designed to help end “housing insecurity” were proposed.

The most far-reaching proposal came from Mayor Ethan Strimling, although Duson noted it has elements that have been suggested by other groups, including the Portland Coalition for Housing Justice.

Strimling’s ordinance would require all landlords to provide one-year leases to tenants, but would allow leases to be renegotiated to month-to-month with the consent of both parties. 

But even with a negotiated monthly lease, the parties would still be required to give 90-day notices before termination, unless they agree to shorter notice. 

It would specifically prohibit landlords from discriminating on the basis of a tenant’s income source, including any vouchers a tenant may receive as rental assistance from government agencies.

The ordinance would require 90-day notices for rental increases, with a limit of one increase a year, and only if the building owner did not have any outstanding code violations in any building they own.

Strimling’s ordinance also limits how many tenants can be removed from buildings so repairs or renovations can be made, based on the number of units in the buildings.

For buildings of five to 10 units, an owner could not empty more than 40 percent of the units without cause. For buildings with 11 to 15 units, the percentage is reduced to 33 percent. The percentage is capped at 30 percent for buildings with 16 to 21 units and 25 percent for buildings with more than 25 units.

Before the Aug. 24 meeting, Strimling said the ordinance strikes a balance between the interests of renters and landlords, and said he is confident it could pass any legal challenges.

He said he hopes the Housing Committee, which he established last December, would move the ordinance forward Sept. 14 so the full council could discuss it in October.

“This does move away from at-will tenancy,” he conceded, a move city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said may conflict with an overriding state law that allows no-lease arrangements.

Strimling said prohibiting rent increases when there are code violations is necessary to protect tenants, but may not be as onerous as imagined.

“Fix it,” he said. “If you have buildings that are not up to health and safety standards, you need to get up to code. It is not like every time you raise the rent we are going out to check your buildings.”

The formula for limiting how many leases can be terminated is a way to prevent situations like the evictions from 61-69 Grant St. that occurred in March.

“We are trying to reduce the impact on the community with these mass evictions,” Strimling said. “It is the impact on the tenants themselves, it is the impact on the community.”

The Housing Committee may also move forward on ordinances introduced by Councilors Spencer Thibodeau and Jon Hinck. Thibodeau has proposed a “leeway” program requiring a 90-day lease termination period similar to Strimling’s proposal.

That notice period could be reduced if the landlord agrees to a settlement with tenants that could help pay moving costs or other expenses related to finding a new place to live.

Hinck has proposed providing more financial assistance to lower-income renters forced out by no-cause evictions, with funding possibly split between the city and landlords.

Strimling said he supports both measures.

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.