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Business and Economy

Advocates: Portland's Tight Housing Market Squeezing out Tenants' Voices

Tom Porter

PORTLAND, Maine - In the wake of last month's deadly fire in Portland that claimed the lives of six young people, a special city task force is poised to take up the conversation about what might be done by tenants, landlords and city officials to ensure such a tragedy doesn't happen again.

Questions are being asked about tenants' rights and what help is available to them if they feel unsafe in their homes.

For many Portland renters who have complaints about their landlords, there seems to be one over-arching concern: "There's nobody advocating for us," says Tom MacMillan.

MacMillan has just moved out of his Portland apartment after only three months there because of his landlord's failure to address concerns such as heating and fire safety. "Tenants are unorganized, and that's a huge issue," he says. "In Portland there's no tenants' board, there's no rent control, there's nobody in City Hall thinking about renters."

"Renters need a real voice - too often at the table they are left out of the conversation," says Diane Russell, a Democratic state representative for the district of Portland that includes Munjoy Hill, a fashionable neighborhood known for having some of the highest rents in the state.

Russell says Portland's tight rental market puts landlords in a powerful position, while at the same time potentially making tenants more vulnerable.

"So we have a scenario in Portland where we have some really bad apartments going for premium prices," she says. "And we also have a scenario where, if you're a renter and you're looking for a place to live, and you see a low price on a rental unit, you just assume that the landlord is probably not taking good care of that particular building."

And that could mean living in a building that's not up to code. Russell wants to see a more standardized fire code - possibly at the state level - and, critically, more funding to enforce it.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
Pine Tree Legal attorney Katherine McGovern.

Katherine McGovern agrees. McGovern is an attorney at Pine Tree Legal, a non-profit that provides legal help to low-income Mainers. She's also going to be sitting on the city task force set up to address the fire safety issue. Tenants, of course, do have rights under state law, says McGovern, but they might not be aware of them.

McGovern says it's critical that city code enforcement officials follow up on complaints made by tenants about their housing situation, "that inspections are done, and that when violations are noted, that the code enforcement office follows up and ensures that landlords are actually making the repairs that a, re noted in those violation letters."

But she acknowledges that the city is underfunded. Pine Tree itself, she says, is also overstretched. This year, the organization has handled more than 360 housing cases in Portland, affecting more than 730 people, about a third of them children.  

But that number could be a lot higher:  The Portland office alone, McGovern says, receives at least 1,500 calls a day on a variety of topics. "And we only have three intake paralegals who can return those calls. And we only have two attorneys who do housing work who are covering Cumberland, York County and Sagadahoc County.

McGovern says more effort could be made to organize and educate tenants, both about their rights in general and about fire safety.

Independent state legislator Ben Chipman, of Portland, feels the same way. "I can't over emphasize the importance of education," Chipman says.

Chipman, who comes from a family of firefighters, and represents the Portland district in which the deadly November fire occurred, says community forums and education can be more effective than legislation, "because a lot of legislation comes down to enforcement and that requires resources and so-on, and sometimes those resources aren't always there."

The task force is scheduled to meet tomorrow afternoon, and is expected to deliver a full report with recommendations to the City Council in February.

Learn more from Pine Tree Legal about tenants' rights.