South Portland panel shies away from renter-protection proposals

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Despite a directive from some city councilors to include more protections for renters, the Affordable Housing Committee’s revised findings don’t include those measures. 

Committee Chairman Isaak Misiuk on Thursday said the “baseline reason” he and other committee members aren’t recommending that the city adopt rent stabilization measures is because “we didn’t want to be the guinea pig to any lawsuits.”

The City Council was scheduled to discuss the committee’s conclusions at a workshop Monday, Nov. 28, but the item was postponed due to time constraints. A new workshop date was not set. 

Mayor Tom Blake noted Thursday that while the findings don’t include rent-stabilization measures, they do include density bonuses as an option for developers, which could mean a financial incentive to build affordable housing. 

Blake said the council wanted the committee to be less vague in its proposals.

“It was more like give us clarification before we discuss it,” he said. 

The housing committee was sanctioned by the council in January and tasked with working for the next three months to come up with recommendations to help solve the city’s problem of a growing shortage of affordable housing.

The committee, comprised of renters, property owners, landlords and residents, presented its first round of findings to the council in August. The report largely included suggestions for increasing the housing stock.

Councilors responded positively, but most agreed that adding housing is a long-term goal. For a way to help renters now, councilors urged the committee to thoroughly examine rent-stabilization measures

But three months later, the committee has returned with findings that still don’t include those recommendations.

“There needs to be a way to figure this stuff out without putting the burden on the taxpayers,” Misiuk said, because, “at the end of the day, they’re the ones that are going to end up paying the legal fees.”

Instead, the committee’s revised findings, which will likely be presented at a workshop later this month, include expanding density requirements for lots in multi-family neighborhoods to allow more tenants, “as long as the building occurs in a manner compatible with the neighborhood pattern of development,” according to the committee’s Nov. 23 memorandum to the council. 

The committee also recommended that the city complete master plans for each neighborhood, starting in the west end, and include “designated neighborhood activity centers, commercial hubs and downtown areas.”

With regard to rent stabilization, the committee noted “there is a difference between not recommending and opposing.”

“I understand that housing is very scarce – it’s a very tough market right now,” Misiuk said. “But there isn’t enough research or studies done that say any of the things in renters’ protection actually helps affordable housing.” 

The committee cited concerns that measures would end up “turning off prospective housing developers, creating a bureaucratic challenge for the city, and the unintended consequence of causing more frequent rent increases,” according to its memo. 

“Some committee members also perceive that rent control policies have been ineffective in other communities where it exists, negatively affecting the rental market and quality of rental units,” the memo said. 

On other measures, such as implementing standards for no-cause evictions, “the committee expressed concerns related to equity and fairness in the tenant-landlord contract.”

The committee suggested an emphasis be placed on renter and landlord education, rather than regulation. 

In addition to its findings, the committee has asked the council to allow it to reconvene to begin implementing some of the proposed standards. 

Rent control “isn’t black and white – it’s very, very gray,” Misiuk said. He suggested it may be best to see how rent stabilization plays out in Portland before South Portland decides to act.

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.