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October 15, 2020

Portland referendum Question D revisits rent control

A row of triple-decker type apartment buildings on a city street Photo / Maureen Milliken On Election Day, Nov. 3, Portland voters will consider a measure, Question D, on whether to stabilize rents in the city.
What is the language of Portland ballot Question D, the rent control referendum?
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Five referedum questions on the Portland Nov. 3 ballot, the result of a People First Portland citizens initiative, aim to increase affordable housing, make development more attuned to climate change and elevate working and living situations for the city's residents. All five are strongly opposed by a variety of business, government and nonprofit organizations. Mainebiz is taking a look this week at the questions. Today's article focuses on Question D, rent control.

Portland voters resoundingly rejected rent control in the 2017 election, but things have changed, say representatives of the group behind a citizen's initiative calling for voters to revisit the measure on Nov. 3.

"Rents have considerably gone up since then," said Karen Snyder, speaking to Mainebiz for People First Portland. She said opponents of rent control three years ago argued that rents have stabilized.

But the prices have increased 50% in the city over the last decade, according to the the group. "Rents haven't stabilized, they've only gone up," Snyder says.

Opponents say that the policies called for in the referendum will keep landlords from improving the city's aging housing stock and halt efforts to provide more housing in the city, while also prompting landlords to raise rents every year.

"Rents won't go down, but a whole new city bureaucracy will be created," Building a Better Portland, a group made up of a variety of business and real estate groups says on its website.

Question D is opposed by groups ranging from the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, the Greater Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, to Portland Mayor Kate Snyder (no relation) and seven of the city's nine councilors, who issued a news release Tuesday opposing all five of the PFP referendums on the ballot.

According to, the average rent in March, before the COVID-19 pandemic, was $1,497 a month, with renters paying $1,232 for a one-bedroom and $1,674 for a two-bedroom apartment. Those costs have decreased slightly during the pandemic, but are still about 6% higher than the national average.

As of September, average rent for an apartment in Portland was $1,394 which, was still 4.38% increase from last year. In 2011, according to the site, the average rent was $1,071. Portland is consistently ranked one of the least affordable cities in the country to live.

What's in Question D?

The measure calls for:

  • Limiting most annual rent increases to the rate of inflation (about 2%);
  • When a unit turns over, rent can't be increased more than 5%;
  • Banning discrimination against tenants with public vouchers (Section 8);
  • Incentivizing landlords to provide 90-day notice for evictions, currently Portland requires 75-day notice; 
  • Requiring landlords to publish tenants’ rights in each building;
  • Publishing yearly information on the rents in each neighborhood;
  • Creating a tenant/landlord board to oversee rent increases, tenant protections, and consider requests to exceed the rent increase limit under circumstances. 

In 2017, 64% of the city's voters rejected a similar ordinance, with a 13,466-to-7,595 vote. The referendum had many of the same elements this year's does.

The 2020 proposal exempts owner-occupied apartment buildings with up to four units, which is a change from 2017, where the buildings didn't have to be owner-occupied.

Proponents: It will protect tenants

Those in favor of the ordinance say it protects tenants, giving them more power over rent increases, and provides more detailed information on what's behind rent hikes.

The group, which formed from the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America political party, has the support of a variety of labor unions and the Maine State Building & Construction Trades Council, as well as advocacy groups the Maine People’s Housing Coalition, Black P.O.W.E.R, Southern Maine Workers’ Center and the Portland Maine Green Party.

Many renters are priced out of the city, and it's not getting better, said Karen Snyder, of PFP.

Snyder, a landlord, said there are many good landlords in the city, but also many who gouge tenants who have little recourse. "There's always some rationalizing for why they're increasing the rent by $500," she said.

Opponents: It will make housing crisis worse

Opponents, many who have organized through the group Building a Better Portland, say the ordinance will make it harder for people to find affordable places to live, increase property taxes, and prevent preservation on historic buildings. They also say it will incentive landlords to increase rents every year, stop making improvements to property and force them to keep bad tenants for three months. Members also said the rent board is weighted toward tenants.

Question D "will not help help low-income tenants, it will not create housing, in fact it will effectively guarantee that all tenants rents go up every year," said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, at an Eggs & Issues webinar sponsored by the Greater Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce Oct. 7.  Vitalius and the chamber are members of Building a Better Portland.

He said the provision against discrimination is redundant, repeating laws already in place. "It's a red herring to sway voters to vote for this," he said.

One big issue is that landlords won't be able to get more money for improved property. "If you want to rent your property, fix it up, you then go before this rent board and ask for an increase, and the most increase you can be given is 10% after the fact," he said. 

The mayor and City Council, in their news release opposing the referendum question, as well as the other four, said Tuesday it will undo progress the city has worked hard to achieve over the past few years. Councilors signing the letter were Nick Mavodones, Jill Duson, Belinda Ray, Spencer Thibodeau, Tae Chong, Justin Costa and Kim Cook.

The letter says that the mayor and councilors "are not necessarily opposed to the policy goals of the ballot questions, but rather the process and context in which they were developed, anticipated unintended consequences, and the fact that they cannot be changed for five years by the City Council."

If approved, any changes the council wants for the next five years can only be made by a ballot vote of the city's residents.

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October 16, 2020

I am a landlord of one two unit building in Portland. My tenants pay monthly rent that is $300 below market. The only times have had to raise the rents over the past 5 years is because the city of Portland raised property taxes, created a new sewer fee, and created a new safety office in response to the Noyes street Halloween fire a few years ago (they created a new fee for landlords to pay for that office). Last February the city sent out fliers entitled "Let's talk reevaluation" to announce their intention to once again raise taxes. In June that was shelved because of Covid but tax bills that were just sent out indicate that it will be back on come spring. Then city politicians go on the news and decry that greedy landlords are to blame for rising rents. When property values go (for many reasons) the city is right there to capitalize on the increased value and by doing so guarantees that rents will rise and stay there. If you want affordable housing then the city should be working with developers to build it. They can use tax incentives and other measures that don't infringe upon citizens or pervert the free market.

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