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Advocates Deliver Rent Control Petitions to Portland City Hall, But Will Item Be on the Ballot?

Nora Flaherty
Maine Public/file
The Bayside Village apartment complex in Portland.

A new fight is brewing in Portland over whether renters deserve new protections in one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation. But the fight might not be playing out on the Nov. 7 ballot, even if petitions delivered to City Hall Monday are validated as sufficient. City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin issued a statement Monday saying that officials had determined that there would not be enough time to hold a public hearing, which has to be done 90 days before the vote.

"Upon further review of the City's ordinance, it was determined today that the two potential citizen initiative referendum questions will not be eligible for the November 7th election given that they do not meet the ordinance's requirements," Grondin wrote. "Specifically, the City Council must do the following before these questions can be properly submitted to the voters: (1) set a public hearing date on each initiative at its next regularly scheduled meeting after the petition signatures have been validated by the City Clerk; (2) give 10 days notice of that scheduled hearing; (3) hold that hearing and submit the initiative to the voters at least 90 days before the next regularly scheduled election."

The other question involves zoning changes.

The group Fair Rent Portland, which has been leading the petition drive, expressed dismay in a press release issued Monday night.  "We at Fair Rent Portland are surprised, disappointed, and shocked to learn of the erroneous instructions provided to us by the City Clerk’s office."

The group claims the city clerk told them "on multiple occasions" that they needed to deliver at least 1,500 valid signatures by Aug. 7 to qualify for the ballot.

Grondin says the snafu was the city's mistake, not the campaign's.  She says officials too expected the item to be on the November ballot, and are working toward making that happen.

"There definitely was an error made in terms of how this process would go forward," she says. "Certainly nobody here wants to see this postponed. That includes city staff and councilors. So the city attorney right now is researching the other options available to the council and, hopefully, we can come up with a solution."
Members of Fair Rent Portland say they will continue to work with city officials to "ensure the referendum is on the ballot" in November.

Volunteers with the group delivered some 2,500 petition signatures to city hall Monday, hoping to qualify for a local referendum this fall on whether to put the brakes on a years-long trend of rapid increases in rents. Julia Tate, an architect who moved from Brooklyn to Portland in 2015, says she was surprised at what she had to pay.

“We were paying just a hair less than we were paying for a place in Brooklyn, about the same size,” says Tate.

And she took a 25 percent pay cut when she moved here too. So now she’s working to enact a limit on how quickly rent on existing leases can rise for apartments in larger buildings built before this year. Allowable rent hikes would be tied to the rate of inflation, or around 2 percent. That compares to a 4.5 percent annual increase in median rents the city has seen this decade, according to city statistics — with median rents nearly 20 percent higher than they were seven years ago.

“Our ordinance is only specified for seven years, so it sunsets after that. We can expect over those seven years to see something like a 10 percent decline in real rent,” says Jack O’Brien.

He teaches statistics at Bowdoin College. A Portland native, he recently returned to the city after years away. He says studies of similar rent stabilization plans in Cambridge, Massachussets and in Hollywood show that they can effectively slow a loss of middle-class residents in popular communities.

“Working folks who are in the sort of working class to the very middle class, so it’s not really helping folks at the high end and it’s not really helping folks at the very low end,” he says.

Advocates working for that very low end, though, see the effort as a distraction from the city’s real needs. Dana Totman is CEO of Avesta Housing, which builds and administers affordable and senior housing in Cumberland and York counties.

“The focus really needs to be on increasing the supply of affordable housing, and I worry that the energy that goes into rent stabilization and ultimately tweaking existing rents is really energy that perhaps takes away from what’s really needed and that’s creating affordable housing,” Totman says.

Portland has been adding to its housing supply — with more than 900 recently opening up or under construction now. Many have been geared to the high-end market, and City Planner Jeff Levine says that’s not enough to put significant downward pressure on median rents. He adds though, that developers do appear to starting to set their sights more on housing for the middle class.

“Slightly above average income but not luxury units,” Levine says. “And that’s promising for a couple of reasons. One is its always good to see more housing stock at all levels. But also those are the units over time that might actually end up impacting rents for low-income residents because they are less likely to become high-end condos for example. They are just more similar in style to traditional housing units.”

Fair Rent’s Jack O’Brien acknowledges that rent stabilization by itself can’t overcome a scarcity of supply. But the time-limited rent stabilization proposal, he says, would give the city a much-needed breather, buying time for the deployment of new city policies that aim to protect the diversity of its economy and housing stock.

Ed Morin contributed to this story, which has been updated.