South Portland renters, landlords find little common ground

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SOUTH PORTLAND — There is a shortage of affordable housing in the city, landlords and tenants agreed during a City Council workshop on renter protection policies proposed by Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

But the two sides differed on how the problem should be remedied.

Tenants at the workshop Monday at Redbank Community Center said rents have become unaffordable, and they are being priced out of the South Portland market. Some residents say they are working two or three jobs to pay rent.

Landlords had concerns over rent control, saying it could have unintended consequences and suggesting developers won’t build in a rent-controlled city.

They said it isn’t their responsibility to provide affordable housing, pointing out they have mortgages, taxes, insurance, repairs and other expenses. Many said they work hard, and only have one property.

Pine Tree Legal Assistance, working with the South Portland Tenants Association, last December recommended the city adopt an ordinance that eliminates no-cause evictions; adopt a rent-control ordinance that allows landlords to receive a fair return, but imposes a reasonable cap on rent increases; adopt an ordinance that prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to Section 8 and other voucher-holders; increase the advance notice required for rent increases, and adopt an ordinance to provide relocation assistance.

Joshua J. Reny, assistant city manager and a member of the Affordable Housing Ad-Hoc Committee, said the committee’s final report recommends an education program for landlords and tenants; exploring the practicality of establishing a registration program for rental units, with fees that could be used to fund things like inspections; exploring the legality of a policy against discrimination based on a prospective tenant’s income sources, and considering a model lease or lease language that would be available to landlords.

Jennifer Lessard, a renter who lives in Redbank, called herself fortunate because she has “only” had to move three times, upgrading from a one- to a two- and then to a three-bedroom unit.

Lessard, who said she would like to be a homeowner, wants to stay in South Portland, but doesn’t think it will be possible. She said she hopes the council can come to an agreement that would help both landlords and tenants.

Amanda Carlson, who lives in Old Orchard Beach, called herself a transient. Carlson said she thought she was doing everything right – she got an education, worked hard and got a job – but rents went up, and available jobs don’t support the rents being charged.

Carlson said she was forced to move six times in 2 1/2 years and, at times, was forced to leave apartments before her lease was up.

“I’m an artist. I make pottery. I’m a massage therapist. I am a dancer. I helped make this place cool and I can’t afford to live here,” Carlson said.

Michael Drinan, of Drinan Properties, a property management company with offices in Knightville, said housing should be based on a free-market system. The only cure for the housing problem is to build more housing, he said, which would drive rents down.

Richard Berman, a developer and a member of the affordable housing ad-hoc committee, said he supports longer notice periods for rent increases. But Berman, who developed Brick Hill, said rent controls would have “unintended consequences that you won’t like,” and he would not build in any community that has rent controls in place.

Rent control means trouble for developers, Berman said, and it works against making housing more affordable.

Daniel Warren, a landlord who lives in half of a two-unit house he owns on Skillin Street, said he won’t see a profit from his property for 30 years. He urged councilors to understand federal and state laws, read studies, and talk to regional property managers.

Warren agreed with Drinan: “If you want to stop the high prices,” he said, “you have to build more housing.”

Timothy Donohue said he has never evicted anyone in the decade he’s been a landlord in South Portland. “We are not in the business of evicting people,” Donohue said. “Turning over a unit is very expensive. It is not cost effective to lose a good tenant.”

He said it’s a myth that landlords use 30-day, no-cause evictions to get rid of people.

Chris Kessler, founder of the South Portland Tenant’s Association, asked the council to at least give people who are being displaced a chance to land on their feet by increasing the notice required for evictions.

“Thirty days’ notice is not enough,” Kessler said.

Kessler said the issue is about respect and caring for renters in South Portland, and claimed there are many hard-working people in the community who are being kicked out of apartments.

Allen Pipkin, a landlord, said Pine Tree Legal’s intentions are good, but no-cause evictions would make his job that much more difficult. He said risky applicants will become even more risky if he can’t screen for them.

Realtor Joe Flynn said he has managed more than 200 units in the greater Portland area and believes landlords aren’t going to be able to take care of their properties if the government regulates costs.

Councilor Claude Morgan called the recommendations “all stick and no carrot,” characterizing them as a potential overreach by the council.

Morgan said more housing units need to be created and “we shouldn’t be asking a segment of our population to take on more risks and more costs.”

Morgan said rent control is a throwback to the 1970s and ’80s, but that he could live with education, unit registration and longer eviction notices.

Having landlords register units should help provide a better understanding of the geography and need for housing, Councilor Eben Rose said.

Councilor Brad Fox said he is sympathetic to small landlords. “We all want you to make a fair return,” he said.

However, Fox said he’s also heard complaints from people who have been affected by no-cause evictions, particularly by out-of-town corporate landlords who buy properties and evict tenants so they can raise rents.

Fox said it is practically impossible for people to find new apartments in the city on short notice. He said the city needs to base actions on data, and consider the plight of smaller landlords.

Fox said the council also needs to spend some time looking at the issue.

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or Follow her on Twitter@melaniesochan.

South Portland City Councilors Claude Morgan, left, and Eben Rose on Monday, March 13, at a workshop on renter protections. Morgan said he would not support rent control.