Rising South Portland rents prompt call for action

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A Knightville resident is working to gather community support for a rent stabilization ordinance in the city.

Chris Kessler said he and his family have been subject to increasingly unaffordable rents, so he established the Committee for Affordable Housing. He’s asking people who have been “subject to unreasonable rent increases or been forced to relocate because of rent price increases” to contact him.

Kessler said he has since received dozens of calls and emails from residents, one of whom is Marie Harmon.

When Harmon and her husband Scott moved into their modest Mosher Street home on a snowy day in February 2014, they had no idea, they said, that mold had been growing vigorously behind the walls and beneath the floor.

It wasn’t until last June, when a cupboard in their kitchen fell from the wall and on Scott, that the couple and their 16-year-old son, Justin, realized that mold was to blame, and that they had been breathing it for nearly four months.

It’s a troubling situation for anyone to be in, Marie said by phone on Monday, but it was especially upsetting because Justin, who was born with breathing complications and has used an inhaler his whole life, had started to have trouble breathing at home.

The Harmons, who are South Portland natives and high school sweethearts, started looking for a different place to live. Four months later, worried that heating their home will amplify the effect of the mold, but wanting to stay in the area so Justin could complete his last two years of high school, they’re no closer to moving out than they were four months ago.

The Harmons pay $1,300 for rent and utilities each month, a figure that isn’t sustainable for their income level, Marie said. They’re searching for a place to rent that also includes heat and hot water, for $1,200.

Marie gets $306 worth of food stamps each month – “If we didn’t, we wouldn’t eat,” she said. She and Scott both work part time, and that amount, on top of a monthly Social Security Disability Insurance stipend, provides monthly income of about $2,300.

The Harmons have thought about applying for an affordable housing unit, but knowing the length of the wait list, it’s not worth it, Marie said. Even then, “getting housing isn’t even a guarantee,” she said.

Thousands of South Portland residents face a similar dilemma, and many are in worse shape than the Harmons.

“I think it’s hard for us because, with the rents being the way they are,” Harmon said. “People need some sort of help, whether it be food or rent assistance.”

Forced to move after 4 years

As Kessler and his wife, Jessie, prepared homemade pizza and salad for dinner in their A Street home Wednesday night, their daughters, Lyla, 2, and Cadence, 5, ran back and forth through the kitchen.

Earlier this summer, the Kesslers, both 33, were told they would not be able to renew the lease for their apartment on Cottage Road after living there for four years.

“Because we were tenants at-will status, we were kicked out and (the landlord) was able to do what she wanted to do, and we had no recourse,” Kessler said as he spread sauce on the pizza dough.

They were paying $825 a month, which Kessler admits was “definitely below market rate.” Including utilities, in the dead of winter, the Kesslers weren’t paying more than $1,100. Because it was affordable, the Kesslers had planned to stay in that apartment until they had saved enough money to invest in a house.

When they got notice of their eviction, which would have required them to vacate by Aug. 6, the Kesslers had to scramble.

“I was basically weighing, OK, we’re going to stay (in the city) or we’re going to vacate,” Chris said.

At the last minute, when the couple were worried they would be facing homelessness after their eviction date, they found a place by word of mouth less than a mile down the road.

Motivated by the experience and by speaking with others – as well as witnessing the tight housing market – Kessler decided there was a need in South Portland for some sort of rent stabilization ordinance.

“Fifty percent of my income goes toward rent,” Kessler said. “We are just getting by, but there are a lot more people in worse situations than me.”

Demand on the rise

The South Portland Housing Authority manages 685 affordable housing units across the city, all of which are occupied. It has issued 389 housing vouchers this year, and all but 33 individuals or families with vouchers have found places to live, said Mike Hulsey, the agency’s executive director.

The waiting list is typically around two years, said Lisa Viola, deputy director of the housing authority. Nearly 7,000 people are currently on the list for Section 8 housing in the South Portland, Portland, Westbrook, Bath and Auburn areas, which have been pooling their numbers since 2013, Hulsey said.

While affordable housing can accommodate a spectrum of invidiuals with varying income levels, many could benefit from an inclusionary zoning ordinance, Hulsey said.

By the housing authority’s standards, Hulsey said, one individual who makes less than $30,000 would qualify for affordable housing.

South Portland has just over 25,000 residents. In 2012, about 7,800 residents, or a third of the city’s population, fell within the very low-income to moderate-income households.

A solution to the problem could be to shelter a certain percentage of rentals in a new apartment building for affordable housing, Kessler said.

Kessler is interested in examining something similar to the inclusionary zoning measure passed last week by the Portland City Council, especially with impending projects like the Mill Creek Master Plan, which hopes to attract new development to the Mill Creek neighborhood.

The Portland model

Portland’s measure requires that, with new developments that offer more than 10 units, 10 percent of those units be set aside for people earning 100 percent to 120 percent of the area’s median income.

“I would like to see that rent increases can’t exceed a certain amount per year,” Kessler said. “Regardless, we need to create more housing, period.”

In the meantime, to continue gathering data and community support, Kessler has formed a South Portland Tenants Association Facebook page.

“We have a need that needs to be met immediately because there is a humanitarian crisis in our community,” Kessler said. “It is within our collective power to do something.”

“South Portland has changed so much, it’s outrageous,” Harmon said Wednesday morning at her home. “We should not have to fight this hard to get some sort of help in this world.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

Marie Harmon on the steps of her rented home on Mosher Street in South Portland, where she lives with her husband and son. The Harmons have been searching for a different place to live, but they’ve been unable to find anything affordable.

Chris Kessler serves his oldest daughter, Lyla, a piece of homemade pizza at their home on A Street on South Portland. Kessler is leading an effort to draft a rent stabilization ordinance in the city.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.