SOUTH PORTLAND — With the ad hoc Affordable Housing Committee expected to soon send final recommendations to the City Council, the resident who was a catalyst behind formation of the committee resigned in protest.
In a resignation letter to the council, renters’ rights and housing stability advocate Chris Kessler expressed frustration with the makeup of the panel and its only subcommittee, and with the legal guidance the committee received.
When the committee was sanctioned by the City Council in January, it was given three months to find solutions to the rising cost of rental housing in the city, and to evaluate what kinds of rent-control measures, if any, should be considered.
Those measures can include setting limits on rent increases, requiring landlords to provide just cause for evictions, or requiring that tenants who experience no-cause evictions be provided with compensation.
Councilors, in response, advised the committee to provide more rent-stabilization options, which, most councilors agreed, would be easier, short-term fixes. Increasing rental housing is a long-term goal, councilors said.
At the Aug. 22 workshop, Kessler criticized the committee’s findings. “One thing that is strikingly absent from this whole process (was) any meaningful protection for renters,” he told councilors.
He went further in his Sept. 1 resignation letter.
His primary mission for serving on the committee, he said, was to “represent renters in any important decision-making that impacted their health, safety and general welfare, (and) to advocate for policy that would protect renters in South Portland from increasing frequency of dramatic rent increases, no-cause evictions and subsequent displacement.”
While Kessler said his time on the committee was productive, he criticized the “political leanings of committee members” and the balance of the committee, calling their priorities “skewed,” particularly after two renters resigned for reasons unrelated to the housing committee.
“I do not feel the committee truly represents the makeup of the community,” Kessler said. “Even after voicing this concern, the committee still decided to take votes.”
Kessler also claimed that the membership on the panel’s subcommittee, formed to discuss the proposals of the South Portland Tenants Association, was unbalanced, because it include one renter (Kessler), two landlords, a landlord’s lawyer and a property owner.
He also said legal advice the subcommittee received came “from a lawyer who primarily represents the interests of landlords. … Statements she made during that subcommittee process were later proven to be incorrect with some research, but unfortunately it had an impact on the process.”
City Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett’s contribution, meanwhile, “lacked research and contradicted itself (and) the lack of follow-up given by city staff to these legalities was disappointing, and I felt it demonstrated a lack of will to fully vet what was being proposed.”
Kessler said by phone Wednesday that the committee representation left much to be desired when it came to “real, thorough debate and invested voices on both sides of the issue.”
The area of disagreement between Kessler and other committee members came down to whether rent control is fair to all parties involved.
Affordable Housing Committee Chairman Isaac Misiuk, a Planning Board member, said it was the consensus of the group to move away from most rent-control options.
The committee’s findings, when presented to the council in August, showed that approximately 47 percent of renters across the city are “cost-burdened,” meaning they devote more than 30 percent of their annual income to fund their housing.
Between 2009 and 2014, the cost of rent in the city rose 16 percent, and Assistant City Manager Josh Reny told councilors that renters are being “disproportionately affected by the cost of housing.”
Kessler said he hopes councilors will continue toward enacting rent-control measures, and attached rent control and consumer protection proposals to his letter of resignation.
“There will be legal challenges from landlords who want to protect their interests, just as there are legal challenges from other entities in our community that want to protect their interests,” Kessler said in his letter. But “it is up to the council to protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents.”
When the committee brings proposals to the council in October, it will include the same number of renter protection solutions as the first draft in August, Misiuk said. Most involved outreach to educate renters about their rights.
The reason the committee hasn’t supported more rent-control options, Misiuk said, is because “we felt a lot of them would do more damage than good, in terms of keeping rent down.”
“Rent control, no matter how you slice it, rents are going to increase and they’re going to increase more rapidly than they are now,” he said, adding that Kessler “didn’t get his way, so he left.”
But Kessler, in his resignation letter, noted the Maine Legislature’s 1995 decision to repeal rent control in Maine urged local governments to act on their own:
“‘The Legislature intends to permit municipalities to continue to adopt and enforce rent control ordinances under home rule authority,'” he wrote. “It cannot be more clear than that.”