Portland, Maine, Debates and Rejects Rent Control

Tuesday, November 14, 2017
Jared Brey
Next City

Voters in Portland, Maine, rejected a ballot measure last week that would have established a rent stabilization program in the small coastal city, capping off months of debate over how to address rising housing costs.

The seeds of the effort were planted in 2014, after several years of steady rent increases, when a small group of renters formed a tenants union to advocate for greater tenant protections. But the rent-control initiative kicked off in earnest this past summer, when the group Fair Rent Portland registered as a political action committee. In August, the group announced that it had more than enough signatures to put an ordinance on the November ballot. In the ensuing months, Fair Rent Portland was out-fundraised by an opposing coalition of developers and landlords called Say No to Rent Control. On Election Day, the measure was soundly defeated.

If it had been approved, the referendum would have enacted a 16-page ordinance drafted by members of the Fair Rent Portland coalition. The law would have capped year-over-year rent increases, implemented a version of “just cause” eviction rules that are increasingly popular among tenant advocates, and established a seven-member Rent Board to review applications from landlords for rent increases, mediate in landlord-tenant disputes, and impose fines for violations of the ordinance.

Fair Rent Portland formed amid a sharp increase in housing demand in the city accompanied by a steady rise of rental costs. In 2015, a report from real estate website Zillow found that rents in the city had risen by more than 17 percent in one year. Rents have stabilized since 2015, according to an analysis by the Portland Press Herald (which has had exemplary coverage of housing issues in the city.) But reports of mass evictions convinced Jack O’Brien, a co-founder of Fair Rent Portland and a professor of statistics at Bowdoin College, that the city was facing a housing crisis.

In O’Brien’s view, the work of a housing committee established to deal with the crisis by City Council was unsatisfying, and leaned too heavily on the approval of landlords and developers. So he decided an independent effort was necessary. Maine’s referendum process allows citizens to create their own laws, bypassing the legislative process altogether. Fair Rent Portland convened a nine-member steering committee to write the ordinance, with assistance from a local law firm that specializes in land use. For inspiration, O’Brien studied rent control laws in West Hollywood, California, and Takoma Park, Maryland. The group decided early on to make the measure temporary, with a sunset clause kicking in after seven years, O’Brien says — something to slow the pace of cost hikes while the city figured out how to address the issue more holistically. He felt that the ordinance itself was “fairly moderate.”

But, he says, “The landlords didn’t see it that way.”

Brit Vitalius, a real estate agent, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and spokesman for the Say No to Rent Control group, says the opposition mobilized in response to the rent control portion of the ordinance. But the other aspects of the policy were even more concerning, especially knowing that it couldn’t be overturned or even amended legislatively under Maine law. Under the terms of the proposal, the rental rates wouldn’t reset when a tenant left, meaning rent control would apply to the unit itself; that could prevent owners from making renovations to units that needed them the most, Vitalius says. The opposition worried about the prospects of a civilian board setting fines in landlord-tenant disputes. And they argued that the ordinance could actually make the affordable housing crunch worse: Thinking they would have a hard time getting rid of “problem tenants,” landlords would simply avoid leasing apartments to people with low incomes or bad credit in the first place.

“Rent control seems to protect the people who have rent today, which by definition means they can afford rent today,” Vitalius says. “The supporters were — and I’ll get a little pejorative here —were kind of the young hipsters who came to Portland, and now Portland is a cool city, and they want to live in the cool parts of the city, and those parts are getting expensive.”

Vitalius says that, while it wasn’t a key plank in Say No to Rent Control’s public arguments, it’s a fact that not everyone is going to be able to live in a city like Portland, which has limited land area and is increasingly attractive to people with more money to spend. Portland is about as small as a lot of larger cities’ neighborhoods. Concerns about affordable housing should be addressed on a more regional scale, Vitalius believes, with upzoning in nearby suburbs and investments in transportation infrastructure.

O’Brien acknowledges that the city is gentrifying, but says that Fair Rent Portland’s proposal was meant to make the city’s rising housing costs easier to handle for residents.

“Rent stabilization doesn’t prevent gentrification in the long run,” O’Brien says. “It just slows the rate at which it occurs so that it’s happening on the tenant’s time scale rather than on the landlord’s time scale.”

If they were starting over, O’Brien says, Fair Rent Portland might think about separating out the various aspects of the policy so they could be debated separately. And he wishes there had been more time for the campaign, to bring in people from other cities and talk through all the possibilities.

“We were a small volunteer organization,” O’Brien says. “And we should have thought much more carefully about how entrenched and well-funded the opposition was.”

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