Portland rejects proposals for rent, zoning controls

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PORTLAND — Supporters of Question 1 and Question 2 were outspent before Election Day and outvoted Tuesday at the polls.

Question 1, a rent stabilization referendum, was defeated 13,466 to 7,595 – an almost 2-1 margin.

Question 2, which would have allowed voters living near proposed zoning changes to block those requests, lost with 47 percent of  the vote, 10,887 to 9,747. 

Opponents of the questions celebrated the victories Tuesday at Rising Tide Brewing Co. on Fox Street, owned by state Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland. Sanborn also organized OnePortland, the political action committee that opposed Question 2.

“We are very relieved; this was a poorly conceived question,” Sanborn said Tuesday night. “It had the potential to freeze us in place.”

In both instances, Say No to Rent Control and OnePortland held the overwhelming financial upper hands. By Oct. 24, Say No to Rent Control had raised almost $270,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, tapping in to funding from building owners, property managers and the National Association of Realtors.

Fair Rent Portland reported raising a total of $5,900 cash through Oct. 24, with $1,800 loaned to the campaign by PAC leader Jack O’Brien. 

“We’re excited to reach the end of the campaign, and to have worked with such passionate neighbors and volunteers to advance a necessary step to preserve our inclusive and equitable city,” O’Brien said in an email. “Our opposition – some of the wealthiest interests in the state – spent more than a quarter million dollars to confuse and misinform voters. This is an absurd sum for a municipal election, and a sorry statement about our democracy.”

Brit Vitalius, the president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and an organizer of Say No to Rent Control, said the defeat of Question 1 was a “resounding victory where people came together and said you can care about affordable housing and still say no to rent control.”

Vitalius said rents in Portland have already flattened or are in decline, and the unprecedented amount of new housing on the way will continue to level housing costs.

OnePortland raised almost $90,000 through Oct. 24, while supporters of Question 2 never raised enough to require reporting as a PAC, but Sanborn said what mattered was the coalition of people opposed to the question.

“There were so many direct implications for what it meant to Portland,” she said.

Supporters of the referendum questions said each one was needed because city leaders and staff were not adequately responding to the housing shortage or gentrification, and giving developers too much freedom to do as they pleased.

O’Brien and Fair Rent supporters said the caps on rent increases and creating a board to mediate landlord-tenant disputes and determine if evictions were legal  would have restored some balance while reaffirming the legal rights of tenants.

The restrictions on rent increases would not have applied to owner-occupied buildings with two or three units, buildings with five or fewer rental units, or construction completed after Jan. 1, 2018. The entire ordinance had an expiration date of Jan. 1, 2025.

O’Brien said the proposed ordinance was written to allow landlords and owners to make a profit while ensuring stability in the rental market and city neighborhoods.

Question 2, the so-called “Give Neighborhoods A Voice” referendum, had its roots in the redevelopment of Camelot Farm, 45 acres of land at 1700 Westbrook St. in Stroudwater.

Michael Barton and his partners bought the farm from the Rogers family, plus an adjacent 10 acres, and sought new zoning to reduce the minimum size of house lots. In total, developers plan to build 98 single-family homes and 25 townhomes, while also setting aside 24 acres along the Stroudwater River as open space with public access.

Feeling the Planning Board and City Council had already decided to approve rezoning, neighbors drafted a zoning revision that would allow 25 percent of registered voters living or owning land withing 500 feet of a proposed zoning change to block the request by filing written objections before a Council vote.

Developers then could have negated the objections by getting signatures in support of the zoning change from 51 percent of voters living or owning property within 1,000 feet of the zoning change.

The ordinance amendment was retroactive to May 15. One of its originators, abutter Mary Davis, also gathered enough objections in early June to block the zoning request on Westbrook Street. 

Davis is also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the city filed in Cumberland County Superior Court that asks the court to restore the R-1 zoning at Camelot Farm.

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

Brit Vitalius said the defeat of Question 1 in Portland on Nov. 8 showed voters could care about affordable housing while rejecting rent control.

Jess Knox and state Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, celebrate the Nov. 8 defeat of Question 2 at Rising Tide Brewery, co-owned by Sanborn.

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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.

  • Matthew Barnes

    Geez. A sensible outcome.