Portland rent, zoning questions run into calendar roadblock

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PORTLAND — Proponents of two housing referendum questions are continuing to try to get them on the Nov. 7 ballot, while a group has formed to oppose one of the proposals.

On Monday, Fair Rent Portland submitted more than 2,500 signatures in support of a rent stabilization ordinance.

As Fair Rent Portland members spoke with the press, Stroudwater residents Mary Davis and Angela Wheaton submitted about 2,000 signatures supporting an ordinance amendment that would empower city residents to block zoning changes in their neighborhoods.

On Monday afternoon, city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin issued a statement saying the questions will not make the ballot because there is not enough time to validate the signatures, have the City Council schedule a public hearing, and provide the required 10 days notice for the hearing – all at least 90 days before Nov. 7.

“We at Fair Rent Portland are surprised, disappointed, and shocked to learn of the erroneous instructions provided to us by the city clerk’s office,” the group said in a press release Monday, adding it would ask the city attorney and councilors to find a way to get around the calendar roadblock.

On Tuesday, Wheaton said supporters of the zoning ordinance also want to be on the Nov. 7 ballot.

“We had heard a few different things (from city officials),” she said. “We heard it was November, or June of 2018. It seems there has been some confusion all along about this.”

Fair Rent Portland promised a direct approach this week, with rallies scheduled for noon and 5 p.m. in front of City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 9.

City councilors are next scheduled to meet Aug. 21, then again on Sept. 6. City Clerk Katherine Jones must certify 1,500 signatures of registered city voters for each proposed referendum question.

A $64 million bond question for repair and renovation of four elementary schools is now the only referendum question on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Jack O’Brien of Fair Rent Portland, and Davis, an attorney who helped write the zoning ordinances, said their efforts are responses to government inaction.

“These are common-sense solutions people can really get behind,” O’Brien said outside City Hall on Monday.

The rent stabilization ordinance would cap annual rent increases in occupied apartments in buildings with five or more units to the combination of annual increases in city property taxes and the local measure of the Consumer Price Index compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Rental units constructed after Jan. 1 are exempt from the ordinance, which also establishes a city board to compile data, set increases and hear disputes between landlords and tenants. The ordinance also has a sunset clause of seven years and would have to be renewed by the council or another referendum.

Citing rent increases of 40 percent in the last five years, O’Brien said the rent stabilization ordinance protects renters while allowing landlords to continue to make profits. The ordinance caps rent increases at 10 percent annually, but allows larger increases for landlords who renovate buildings.

It also allows landlords to “bank” increases not made in a year, and to set rents as they wish when new tenants move in. Newer construction would be exempt because it would not affect the overall affordability of rental housing, O’Brien said.

The “Give Neighborhoods A Voice” referendum would amend Chapter 14 of the city code by allowing 25 percent of registered voters living within 500 feet of a proposed zone change to block new zoning by filing written objections.

The objections would have to be submitted before a City Council vote on the proposed zoning change.

If 51 percent of registered voters living within 1,000 feet of the proposed zoning change sign a petition in support of the change within 45 days of the objections, the proposed new zoning could be considered for a council vote.

The ordinance change covers the entire city, but has its roots on Westbrook Street, where developers want to add more than 100 new housing units on 55 acres of land.

City councilors narrowly approved the zoning changes at Camelot Farm and an adjacent property on July 24, but the proposed ordinance changes are retroactive to May 15.

Davis has already filed enough objections to block the new zoning if the referendum passes.

On Monday, Jess Knox and state Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, announced the formation of OnePortland, a political action committee that will oppose the zoning ordinance.

Knox was among the leaders of the opposition to a failed 2015 referendum that sought to amend zoning at the former Portland Co. site at 58 Fore St. while protecting other city scenic vistas.

“This referendum would be a disaster for Portland,” Sanborn said in a press release. “If this referendum passes, it would hamstring our ability to address the needs of our growing city. Our future will remain mired in the past rather than reflecting the smart urban planning and design of today.”

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

Left, Fair Rent Portland members Jack O’Brien, Nick Pellenz and Julia Tate submit 2,500 signatures in support of a rent stabilization ordinance Aug. 7 in City Hall. Right, Melissa Caiazzo of the City Clerk’s Office looks over 2,000 signatures submitted minutes later by Mary Davis, center, and Angela Wheaton in support of zoning reforms.

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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.