South Portland councilors to housing panel: Keep rent control in mind

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city must still enact measures that offer protection for renters, city councilors told the Affordable Housing Committee Monday night. 

The ad hoc panel presented its findings – largely proposals for increasing the stock of rental housing – to the council in an Aug. 22 workshop.

Some at the meeting criticized the committee’s proposed solutions for not making renter protections, including rent control, a priority. 

Committee member Chris Kessler, an A Street resident who was instrumental in bringing the council’s attention to the issue last year before the committee was formed, said “one thing that is strikingly absent from this whole process (was) any meaningful protection for renters.”

The committee was formed earlier this spring, after some residents last year proposed the council enact rent stabilization measures across the city. 

In response to an increasingly tight market, with what many say is a lack of affordable housing, the council tasked the committee with examining the issue before presenting potential courses of action. 

For a residence to be affordable, according to the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the cost of rental housing should be no more than 30 percent of a person’s annual income. 

Those who pay more than 30 percent are considered “cost-burdened.”

Approximately 47 percent of renters in South Portland are in that group, according to information the committee presented to councilors at the Aug. 22 meeting. 

And using the most recent statistics available from 2014, approximately 15 percent, or more than 1,600 renter households in South Portland, devote more than 35 percent of their annual income to housing costs.

Rents in the city are also rising faster than rents throughout Cumberland County or Maine, Assistant City Manager Josh Reny said; between 2009 and 2014, rents rose about 16 percent.

Not only is this a “growing problem,” he said, but renters are being “disproportionately affected by the cost of housing” in the city. 

A long-term goal outlined in the committee plan is for the city to create more housing stock, at market rate and affordable. 

According to the Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis compiled by HUD, the city should, between now and October 2018, create 200 new rental units and 400 new units for home ownership, committee Chairman Isaac Misiuk told councilors. 

The committee presented eight final recommendations to the council for action. 

One would make it easier to rent space in existing buildings, or to add trailers on property. That would support two goals, according to the committee’s findings, by “increasing the supply of rental housing and providing homeowners a source of supplemental income to improve the affordability of home ownership.”

Other suggestions included adding housing-related recommendations to the Comprehensive Plan; increasing the density allowances for certain residential zones; setting up a safety and code compliance program for rental units; and establishing a Housing Trust Fund that would provide incentives and aid to developers. 

But councilors said the committee needs to go farther and establish feasible short-term goals for renter protection, and that the committee should come to the next workshop with a concrete outline for addressing the problem. 

“I think there’s at least this one piece that we might want to look at sooner (rather) than later, and that’s the protections,” Councilor Linda Cohen said.

“Rent controls, those are things we can do immediately,” Mayor Tom Blake added. 

Investing in more housing stock is a “longer-term fix,” Blake said. “Ultimately, by creating enough units, it’s going to decrease the value of those units – that’s what we’re trying to do long term.”

The council agreed to reconvene the conversation with the committee in later September or October. 

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

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.