Jason Shedlock, regional organizer for Laborers’ International Union of North America New England, speaks at an Oct. 10 press conference in support of the ballot questions backed by People First Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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With Election Day less than three weeks away, campaigns are gearing up on both sides of several questions on the Portland municipal ballot.

Questions A-E would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, ban facial surveillance, enact a Green New Deal, create a form of rent control, restrict short-term rentals in the city, and eliminate some restrictions on marijuana businesses. 

Five of the six questions are promoted by People First Portland, a volunteer-based coalition of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America and their allies, including Black POWER (Portland Organizers Working to End Racism, formerly Black Lives Matter Portland) and nearly 20 local labor unions and grassroots organizations.

“The powerful forces of the city have not met the needs of the community – the working-class people, who live and work here and are getting priced out,” said Em Burnett, a volunteer and organizer for People First Portland. The campaign states that the five initiatives will “put our residents’ needs before corporate profits.” 

Campaign signs on Portland’s Eastern Promenade debate Question E on the Nov. 3 ballot, which would further restrict short-term housing rentals. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Opposing the questions are three political action committees that recently launched campaigns against specific questions: We Can’t Do $22, in opposition to Question A; Building a Better Portland, in opposition to C, D, and E, and Portland Homeowners and Tenants Coalition, in opposition to E.

The three PACs represent local businesses, real estate developers and landlords, as well as out-of-state businesses and corporations. Combined, the campaigns have received more than $365,000 in cash, in-kind contributions, and loans, which is nearly 15 times as much as the People First Portland campaign.

As of Oct. 9, People First Portland had raised $25,000, with a majority of the donations from unions, and the remainder from individual donors, averaging $30 per contribution.

Behind the We Can’t Do $22 campaign, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce is supported by Hospitality Maine, and local businesses Play It Again Sports and DiMillo’s.

The Maine Association of Realtors organized Building a Better Portland to represent landlords, developers, and property owners in opposition to questions in support of a Green New Deal, which could affect building codes, proposed rent control, and restriction of short-term rentals. 

The campaign has out-of-state support from the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors, which gave an in-kind contribution of nearly $39,000. Building a Better Portland’s principal officer, Ethan Boxer-Macomber, is a real estate developer; the campaign’s primary fundraiser and decision-maker, Brit Vitalius, is the president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. Vitalius also led a campaign that opposed a 2017 rent control referendum.

The third campaign, which was created in opposition to Question E on short-term rentals, is the Portland Homeowners and Tenants Coalition. While the PAC’s treasurer is Chris Korzen, a Portland local, the campaign was founded by San Francisco-based Airbnb.

The opposition campaigns, and in particular Building a Better Portland with support from the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, claim there were flaws in the process of writing the questions. 

“The process was bad, the policies are badly conceived, and the proposals are badly written,” according to the Voter Action Guide for the opposition PACs. The initiatives were written “in a vacuum by a special interest group seeking to advance its agenda,” it says.

The questions were not subject to public hearings, but did require more than 1,500 signatures from registered Portland voters to be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.

If the questions are approved, the initiatives cannot be changed by the City Council for five years.

Question B, which would strengthen the city’s ban on facial recognition surveillance, and Question F, to loosen restrictions on marijuana dispensaries, are the only ones without organized opposition.

Question A: Raise the minimum wage

Question A would increase the minimum wage in Portland from $12 per hour to $15 per hour by 2024. It would also increase the minimum for tipped employees to 50 percent of the minimum wage and, except for those allowed to work at home, would require that employees be paid 1.5 times the minimum wage rate for any work performed during an emergency declared by the state or municipality. 

For instance, if the minimum wage were $12 per hour, and the state or the city issued emergency proclamations such as the emergency orders declared during the coronavirus pandemic, work performed during that emergency would be paid at 1.5 times the minimum wage, or $18 per hour.

A yes vote, as supported by People First Portland, would increase the minimum hourly wage from $12 to $15 from 2022-2024, and would require a $22.50 minimum wage for work performed during declared states of emergency. It also moves the effective date of annual cost-of-living increases to the minimum wage from July 1 to Jan. 1 to maintain consistency with state law.

People First Portland argues that $12 an hour is not enough to afford rent, food, and health care. The minimum-wage worker on average provides 52 percent of their family’s total income, and is most commonly an adult between 25 and 54, spanning industries such as manufacturing, health care, and construction, the group says.

A no vote would maintain the current minimum wage of $12.15 per hour and $6.08 per hour for tipped employees. It would not alter the required minimum wage during a declared state of emergency.

We Can’t Do $22 argues that the proposed ordinance will hurt workers because businesses that cannot afford the higher minimum wage could be forced to close or lay off employees. Portland’s $22.50 minimum wage will be $7.50 higher than any other minimum wage in the country, the group says, and the state of emergency overtime pay would be $33.75.

Question B: Ban facial surveillance

Question B would codify and add enforcement provisions to the ban enacted by the City Council that prohibits the city, its departments, and officials from using or authorizing the use of any facial surveillance software on any groups or members of the public.

A yes vote would establish grounds to sue if facial surveillance data is illegally gathered and/or used; require the city to suppress evidence illegally obtained via facial surveillance, and establish grounds for punishment or suspension of municipal employees who violate the ordinance.

People First Portland argues that facial surveillance is a “threat to our civil liberties,” and that often the technology involved has error rates as high as 98 percent.

There are not any organized campaigns in opposition to Question B, although some city officials have expressed concerns about whether the repercussions included in the proposal would stand up to a legal challenge.

Question C: Enact a Green New Deal

Question C, called a Green New Deal, would change the city’s green building codes, require more “affordable housing” in 25 percent of units in large housing developments, and charge an opt-out fee to developers who decline to create affordable units. The Green New Deal would also require the city to annually publish a report on its use of and reliance on fossil fuels.

A yes vote would require building projects receiving $50,000 or more in public funding to include up-to-date environmental standards, including solar-ready or living roofs. Workers on those projects would receive additional pay.

Affordable housing units would be created in 25 percent of new building developments with more than 10 units. “Affordable” housing qualifies as affordable to people with 80 percent of the area median income; if those units are not created, the developer would pay a fee of $100,000-$150,000 per unit.

Question C would also close the so-called “poor door” loophole by requiring that affordable units be integrated, display no outward signage, and use a common entrance with market-rate units.

People First Portland argues that the economy should transition to one based on “resilience and equality,” and sustainability should include the community as well as the environment. 

“We’re never going to build our way out of a crisis,” Burnett said. “Having more housing can help, but you can’t promote more building as a solution if it’s also a problem. … Existing housing, for the last 10 years especially, has been created into luxury apartments.”

A no vote would uphold the current requirement that 10 percent of new housing units be affordable, and if affordable units are not created, a $106,000 fee per unit would remain in place. The current area income eligibility threshold is 100 percent of the area median income, rather than the proposed 80 percent. 

Portland’s current Green Building Code was enacted in 2009 and requires new construction and renovation projects receiving more than $200,000 in public funds to meet the requirements of any third-party certification, such as LEED or Green Globes, or by a licensed engineer, in 20-30 percent of the new development.

Building a Better Portland argues that Question C will drive up the cost of construction by mandating higher wage and labor standards, and will stifle development for “hundreds of units of affordable and workforce housing” that are currently “in the pipeline.”

Although the PAC agrees that Portland needs more affordable housing, the campaign argues that the referendum will stop the process rather than facilitate it and that its proposals for developers will ultimately cost more money to construct new buildings.

Question D: Protect tenants

Question D would enact rent control, provide incentives for landlords to give tenants a 90-day notice to vacate, and create a landlord-and-tenant board to handle disputes, fine landlords, and allow additional rent increases under specific circumstances.

Rental housing exempt from this ordinance would include units operated by municipal housing authorities; accessory dwelling units; units in multi-unit buildings of four or fewer units where the owner occupies one of the units, and accommodations provided in a hospital or religious facility. 

In 2017, a similar referendum question regarding rent control was rejected by 62 percent of voters. The question also proposed rent control that matched inflation rates for landlords with more than six rental units and a board that would oversee the ordinance.

A yes vote this year would limit most annual rent increases to about 2 percent annually, which is the current rate of inflation; ban discrimination against tenants with public vouchers; extend the time a landlord needs to end at-will tenancy to 90-days; require landlords to publish tenants’ rights in each building and publish annual information on the rent in each neighborhood, and create a landlord-and-tenant board to oversee rent increases and tenant protections.

People First Portland argues that housing is a fundamental right, and in the last 10 years rents in Portland have spiked more than 50 percent, displacing thousands of residents. Tenant protections and rent stabilization will allow the community to “know that their housing is stable,” the group claims.

A no vote, supported by Building a Better Portland, would uphold the 30-day notice for evictions and not limit rent increases for tenants.

Building a Better Portland argues that rent control will “freeze Portland’s progress toward creating more housing and improving the aging housing stock.” The campaign also argues that the limit in rent increases will be capped at 5 percent for new tenants, and at 10 percent for all properties.

Rather than Question D, the group says, solutions for the housing crisis will require “cooperation, innovation, and thoughtful implementation of public policy.”

Question E: Restrict short-term rentals

Question E would restrict all mainland short-term rentals to only those that are owner-occupied, eliminating approximately 400 properties from the available inventory. It would increase the annual fee for mainland STRs from $100 to $1,000, and hike the fee for island STRs to $400.

The initiative also would increase penalties for violations, require the Department of Permitting and Inspections to maintain a log of complaints against STRs, and allow the city to revoke STR licenses for any violations. 

People First Portland argues there is a shortage of affordable housing in the city, and STRs, such as those listed on Airbnb, VRBO, and other short-term rental websites, reduce long-term housing opportunities. 

“Airbnb wasn’t a thing we had five years ago,” Burnett, of People First Portland said. “The regulations in place are very weak, and we don’t know how many unregistered units there are.”

Portland has built an average of 187 rental units a year, Burnett said, and there’s a less than 2 percent vacancy rate. On top of that, only 4.7% of rental units in the city are not STRs, Burnett said.

However, the Portland Homeowners and Tenants Coalition, the opposition campaign backed by Airbnb, argues that tourism is a driver of the city’s economy with many local businesses dependent on visitors and many homeowners relying on their STR income.

The campaign argues that the new regulations are “punitive.”

One Portland resident, Steven Wright, expressed concern about losing income and housing if Question E were to pass. As a renter, and someone who rents out his apartment occasionally as a tenant-occupied STR, Wright said he would no longer qualify for his STR income since the space is not owner-occupied. For work, Wright said he also turns over Airbnb rental rooms, which would be impacted by the limit on STRs.

Question E will also “not add any more units to the supply of low or affordable housing,” Wright said.

Building a Better Portland also opposes Question E.

Question F: No cannabis cap

Question F, the only referendum question not proposed by People First Portland, would eliminate the 20-license cap on marijuana retail stores and dispensaries in Portland, and reduce the required distance between marijuana retailers from 250 feet to 100 feet. 

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

Portland mayor, councilors oppose initiatives

Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and seven city councilors on Tuesday announced their opposition to most of the questions on the Nov. 3 city ballot.

Councilor Pious Ali was the only councilor who did not join in the statement.

The five referendum questions, known as A-E, would increase the local minimum wage; create affordable housing requirements and regulate construction building practices; enact rent control; establish penalties for the use of facial recognition technology, and restrict short-term housing rentals.

In a press release, the mayor and councilors said they are not “necessarily opposed” to the policy goals. But they said they find fault with 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 passed by Portland voters.”

Their statement said they are concerned the questions were developed by one organization, People First Portland, “without consideration for the will of the voters as expressed in 2017 on Rent Control, and in 2015 on a local minimum wage.” 

It said the initiatives disregard recent work by the council and city staff on issues like short-term rentals and banning the use of facial recognition technology, and crafting a joint climate plan with South Portland.

If passed, they said, these ordinances would “significantly alter the landscape of living and working in Portland, and none of the language could be altered for five years except through another ballot measure.”

“Minimum wage is an important issue to continually address,” Snyder said. “However, a Portland-only mandated jump to $15 per hour and the requirement to pay time and a half (up to $22.50) during any declared emergency would likely have devastating impacts on both small businesses and employees in Portland.”

Councilor Nick Mavodones said he strongly encouraged city residents to vote no on A-E.

“Sensible public policy must be developed using a process that considers the opinions and needs of a variety of stakeholders, not just those opinions of one group that decides it is going to push forward with its own proposals,” Mavodones said. “These ordinances clearly fail to take into consideration the complexity, as well as long-term unintended consequences, associated with each topic.”

Councilor Kim Cook said the initiatives would “subvert the open public process
that we follow in considering major policies,” and called their presence on the ballot an “abuse of our citizen initiative process to pass the Democratic Socialists’ agenda.”

— Colin Ellis