Yarmouth petition seeks rent-increase restrictions

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YARMOUTH — A petition submitted to the town last week would establish a Rental Housing Advisory Committee and require landlords to give tenants 75 days’ notice for rent increases.

The proposed Tenant Housing Rights Ordinance was drafted by Councilor April Humphrey with input from members of the Yarmouth Tenants’ Association. It mirrors an ordinance in effect in Portland.

“There are many residents that feel that rent increases in Yarmouth are too much and they want to move out, but don’t have enough time to do so,” Humphrey said on April 26. “The ordinance passed in Portland gave them the idea to pursue this.”

Town Clerk Jennifer Doten on July 30 said 831 signatures had been verified, more than the 518 required to force the Town Council to either adopt it or send it to a voter referendum.

The Town Council on Thursday is expected to schedule a public hearing.

It won’t be the first time councilors have considered the issue.

Last October, Humphrey presented the council with a similar proposal after receiving complaints about rent increases, inadequate repairs and lack of maintenance from tenants at four properties owned by Taymil Partners: Yarmouth Pointe, Yarmouth Green, Yarmouth Place and Yarmouth Landing.

The proposal was rejected.

Steven Astrove, president and CEO of Taymil, on Monday said the company believes the ordinance is part of a “misguided strategy to impose rent control in Yarmouth as a means to keep housing costs at below-market rental rates for people who need affordable housing.”

In October, Humphrey said there was a point when she thought rent control was the only option – and she was willing to propose that – but eventually landed on alternative methods of regulation.

During an Economic Development Advisory Board meeting July 26, Humphrey read a statement from Regional School Unit 5 Finance Director Michelle Lickteig, who lives at Yarmouth Place. Lickteig delivered the petition to Town Hall a day earlier, but wasn’t able to attend the EDAB meeting, where board members decided not to take an official stance on the proposal.

Lickteig said in her statement that tenants of the Taymil properties were talking with each other and noticing significant rent increases.

“Many people who have lived in Yarmouth their entire lives were now being forced to move to another city, because the rents were becoming completely unaffordable in Yarmouth,” Lickteig wrote. “At the same time, some were shocked by the significant increase in rents and were only given 7-10 days to make a decision, which meant also making arrangements to move.”

Maine law requires landlords to give 45 days’ notice if rent is going to increase. According to Astrove, it is already Taymil’s policy to give renters 75 days’ notice of rent increases.

Astrove said tenants are required to give 60 days’ notice before they vacate, as outlined in a copy of a Yarmouth Landing lease agreement, meaning they have 15 days to make a decision, then about two months to find alternative housing.

“The petition states that it is designed ‘to minimize the potential adverse impacts of un-noticed and short-notice rental increases.’  Taymil has never given an unnoticed rental increase. It is illegal,” Astrove said. “… In fact, as a matter of company policy (which has been in effect at our Maine properties for many years), Taymil already provides the 75-day notice proposed in the petition.”

Southern Maine Landlord Association President Brit Vitalius, who is a resident of Yarmouth, but worked on Portland’s rental ordinance, said he supported the Portland action more as a “compromise” at the time. He warned that adopting a similar one in Yarmouth would cross into the domain of what the state already mandates.

“My caution to Yarmouth would be to be careful about stepping into areas that are already covered by state law,” he said. “It seems to go against state statute and have potential legal challenges.”

In a 2016 memo to the tenants’ association, Cape Elizabeth-based attorney David Lourie advised that the Legislature “established a statewide uniform scheme for rent increases, for termination of tenancies … leaving no room for inconsistent municipal regulation.”

Vitalius further pointed out that an advisory committee still hasn’t been formed in Portland.

A potential advisory committee would have seven members, including landlords, tenants and one at-large resident – all residents of Yarmouth and appointed by the Town Council. Astrove said Taymil sees this aspect of the proposed ordinance as “an outgrowth of the proponents’ efforts to demonize our company with false accusations.”

In Portland, the ordinance covers all 18,000 rental units in the city, rather than only those with 10 units or more.

“This ordinance seems to be aimed at one particular (landlord),” Vitalius said, noting that a recent rental study in Portland showed that rates are flat and cautioning the town not to adopt an ordinance based on a reaction to a single market cycle.

Finally, he said adopting such an ordinance could pose the risk of discouraging the development of new housing in town.

Although the EDAB opted not to officially take a position on the matter, Chairman Peter Haynes thanked Humphrey for bringing up what might be the broader issue of a lack of affordable rental options in town. Haynes and the board also agreed the EDAB should discuss how the housing market could be diversified.

Meanwhile, Taymil’s Astrove said, “We reiterate our willingness to get to the heart of the matter and participate in policy discussions on effective strategies to incentivize and achieve affordable housing objectives.”

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

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