Yarmouth councilors' role in tenants' petition raises questions

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YARMOUTH — A local tenants association is petitioning the town to adopt an ordinance, similar to one the Town Council rejected last fall, that would require landlords to provide 75 days’ notice of rent increases.

The Yarmouth Tenant’s Association’s petition has almost 850 signatures, more than the 518 required by the town to force the council to either adopt it or send it to a referendum. 

But the proposal has elicited what one councilor called “serious concern” because Councilor April Humphrey, who drafted the proposal, and former Councilor David Craig also helped solicit signatures for the association.

The ordinance would require landlords to give renters 75 days notice before rent is increased, rather than the state’s mandated 45-day notice, and would apply only to complexes with 10 or more units. It would also establish a Rental Housing Advisory Committee made up of tenants, landlords and other residents to evaluate the rental housing market and make ordinance and policy recommendations to the council.

Humphrey based the ordinance, in part, on an existing one in Portland. 

On June 12, Humphrey and Craig, who at the time was still a councilor, joined members of the association outside the polls with petitions. Two days later, at a Town Council meeting, former Councilor Jim MacLeod rebuked councilors for their involvement in the initiative. 

“We had three members of the town’s governing body spearheading a citizen initiative to adopt an ordinance,” he said. 

Councilor Pat Thompson said in a June 19 email that she has “serious concerns as to whether Councilors (Tim) Shannon, Humphrey and Craig were in direct violation of Maine’s Open Meetings law in the planning and implementation of this alleged ‘citizen’ petition.”

Shannon on Tuesday said he was not involved with drafting the ordinance, nor did he help gather signatures. Still, he said he thinks “it’s a good issue for the Town Council to consider.”

Thompson added she is “equally disturbed that the town manager intentionally failed to inform the Town Council, as the town’s governing body, that this initiative was ongoing.”

Town Manager Nat Tupper said the petition has gone through the required process so far and was handled the same as any other petition.

“I did not notify the Town Council because it’s not my place to say and I don’t want to get stirred into council gossip,” Tupper said. “I think I handled it properly and I feel bad that people on the council think I should’ve handled it differently … I look forward to discussing this with them.”

Humphrey and Craig said they were exercising their rights as residents of Yarmouth.

“I was one of several volunteers who collected signatures that day. I did so as a private citizen,” Craig said. “Never did I mention to anyone that I was a town councilor or that I was doing this on behalf of the council or that this was council business, because it was not council business and I was not in my role as a councilor.”

Humphrey said councilor involvement with the petition was “minimal.”

“No other councilor was involved in drafting the ordinance. I consulted with the Pine Tree (Legal Assistance) attorney and the tenant’s association on that,” she said. “I worked with the tenants association to recruit volunteers for the Election Day petition drive and (now former) Councilor Craig and Councilor Shannon signed up.”

Tupper said he has not sought a legal opinion on Humphrey and Craig’s involvement with the gathering of signatures, but said his “gut instinct” is that they were not violating any town or state law. 

“The law is that three or more councilors can’t discuss town business in private, but an item is not town business until it’s presented,” he said. “It’s a private idea until it becomes business of the town and that’s the petition process.”

Tenants association member Kate Stephens said that while going door-to-door to spread word of the association last year, tenants were threatened with eviction for solicitation by their property owner, Taymil Partners.

Taymil Executive Vice President Patrick Wolfgang on Tuesday said that was “absolutely false.”

Wolfgang said Taymil has a “no-solicitation” policy, but violators are simply reminded of the policy and would not be threatened with eviction.

Stephens, meanwhile, said she expressed her concerns to a councilor more than a year ago and was ignored. She then approached Humphrey, who brought a proposal to the council in October to address tenant concerns about rent increases. The council rejected her proposal.

“We left there feeling that we were not even a part of the resident community of Yarmouth,” Stephens said. 

During a public forum last year, arranged by Humphrey to discuss tenants’ rights with representatives of Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Stephens said between 60 and 75 tenants showed up to share their concerns.

“It’s terrible because I’ve watched several of my neighbors go through the same thing and sign onto leases they can’t afford because they didn’t feel like they had time to ensure another living arrangement,” Stephens said. 

Stephens lives in an apartment at Yarmouth Landing. Taymil also owns Yarmouth Green, Yarmouth Place and Yarmouth Pointe apartments. 

“Substantial rent increases have been a trend since Taymil bought my property,” Stephens said.

Regional School Unit 5 Finance Director Michelle Lickteig, who lives at Yarmouth Place, said she recently received notice that her rent would increase 15 percent, but negotiated it down to 7 percent. Still, she added, some of her neighbors were hit with the 15 percent increase for the same size unit. 

Stephens said one of her neighbors saw a 25 percent increase in their rent last year. 

Wolfgang said increases depend on the market and normally range from 2 to 7 percent, and he was not aware of any higher increases.

“They say it’s fair market value, but my question is, how is fair market determined? It’s determined by what people are willing to pay, but there isn’t any variance here,” Stephens said. Lickteig noted that the majority of commercial rental properties in Yarmouth are owned by Taymil.

Maine law requires landlords to give 45 days notice if rent is going to increase. Wolfgang said it’s Taymil’s policy to give 75 days, although Lickteig said she’s seen inconsistencies.

Wolfgang said tenants are required to give 60 days’ notice before they vacate, meaning they have 15 days to make a decision, then about two months to find alternative housing. 

Passing the ordinance, Humphrey said, would ensure that Taymil’s policy isn’t ever switched back to 45 days’ notice.

“The longer time period is necessary,” Humphrey said. “They would only have 15 days to respond … the decision would still have to be made in (a short) time, but tenants would have longer to look before moving out and would be more likely to take a leap of faith to find something else. It’s not ideal, but it moves things in the right direction.” 

In terms of forming a committee, Stephens said the goal would be to work with management companies to inform them about issues in the community. 

“I hope moving forward we can form an association that’s in some way endorsed by Taymil or permitted by them,” she said. “That’s when the more effective communication can happen.”

Wolfgang said he had no comment on a potential committee, as he had not yet seen the proposed ordinance. 

According to the Town Charter, a petition must include the signatures of at least 7 percent of the town’s registered voters, or 518, according to Tupper. 

Humphrey said she doesn’t think the association plans to gather any more signatures, since they have gathered well over the required number.

“When (and) if filed, (the petition) gets sent to the Town Council for consideration, who must hold a public hearing and then either adopt it or send it to a referendum,” Tupper said.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Yarmouth Town Councilor April Humphrey gathers signatures on June 12 in support of an ordinance that would require landlords to give 75 days’ notice before rent increases, rather than the state-mandated 45.

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