South Portland group to propose rent controls

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A tenants’ rights group will propose rent control regulations at the City Council’s Jan. 25 workshop.

Chris Kessler, of A Street, has been trying to veer public attention toward the increasing lack of affordable housing in the city since last June, when he criticized the Mill Creek Master Plan for failing to include any affordable housing.

Kessler, who started the South Portland Tenants Association and the Committee for Affordable Housing earlier last fall, said he will propose that the council institute rent regulations as a way of protecting renters. 

The proposal will include annual limits on rent increases, linked to the Consumer Price Index; requiring landlords to provide just cause for evictions, and relocation compensation for tenants who lose their homes in “no-fault” evictions. 

The association will also propose that landlords have the right “to increase rent to compensate for capital improvement costs, other than those attributable to deferred maintenance.”

Kessler said the group is proposing formation of a Rent Board to oversee implementation of the new regulations, which would also include annual registration of all rental units in the city, and a registration fee that would be put toward the board’s administrative costs.

“Rent regulation is a necessary policy to prevent the displacement of community members who live here now while we seek long-term solutions to build more housing for people of all incomes and backgrounds,” Kessler said in a press release.

Approximately 40 percent of South Portland’s housing units are rentals, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey. According to Kessler, the average price for a two-bedroom rental in the city is $1,450 a month. 

In 2014, the mean income for households that rent in South Portland was about $35,900 per year, according to census data. In Kessler’s Knightville neighborhood and nearby Ferry Village, the annual median income for renters is about $42,000.

“Based on today’s statistics,” Kessler said Tuesday, “a renter household would need to earn at least $58,000 per year to keep up with rising rent prices.” 

Last summer, after renting for four years, Kessler, his wife and two daughters were forced out of their apartment on Cottage Road in Knightville after a disagreement with the landlord. The family was paying $825 a month in rent and, including utilities, up to $1,100 during winter.

Because it was affordable, the Kessler said they had planned to stay in the apartment until they saved enough money to buy a home.

When they discovered their lease wasn’t going to be renewed, the Kesslers scrambled, and realized they would likely have to leave South Portland to find an affordable apartment to rent. 

They were facing homelessness when they learned about an available apartment in the neighborhood on A Street, slightly more expensive, but manageable for the time being. 

Now Kessler allocated half of his income towards the rent.

“According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development,” he said, families who spend more than 30 percent of their income for housing “are considered cost-burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.”

Kessler noted renters are more than half of South Portland’s population, and said he is trying to bring attention to what he sees as an epidemic in greater Portland. 

If anything, rent controls could help renters feel more in control of their future, especially tenants with children who attend local schools, he said.

“At this our fate is not entirely in our hands,” Kessler said Tuesday morning. “We’re working toward home ownership, we don’t want to be renters – it’s not a desirable position to be in; it’s too unstable.”

While rent control is a step in the right direction, “ultimately (more) housing is going to solve the problem,” he added Thursday morning.  

Mayor Tom Blake said Thursday morning that the discussion at the Jan. 25 workshop will be very broad and that the association’s proposals “may not be what we’re looking for.”

“I think, at this level, we may not be ready for proposals,” Blake said. “We’re more interested in the problem, is there a problem, what are the statistics backing up that problem and what are our options going forward?”

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

Chris Kessler, with his daughters, Cadence and Lyla, and wife, Jessie, in their South Portland apartment last October. Kessler plans to propose a series of rent control regulations to the City Council Jan. 25.

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.