For Sam Colson, the last straw was the mold.
A renter in the Wadsworth building on Preble Street, Colson has mostly enjoyed living in the one-bedroom apartment he’s shared with his son since 2019. But he laments that there’s been a “breakdown in communication” with the property management company about maintenance in the building over the last few years.
The mold issue, which he says he had assessed by a professional, is not the only concern. Colson, who is 52 and works for the Greater Portland METRO public transportation system, said that packages are often stolen from or damaged in the building’s mailroom, which itself is sometimes vandalized, leaving him questioning the building’s security.
He called and emailed his landlords, Port Property, about the mold, and was told to run the vent longer when he showers, he said. He asked them for a camera for the mailroom, but was told that it wasn’t the landlord’s responsibility.
Colson sympathizes with Port Property staff, who are often “agreeable and apologetic,” but wants more of a material response.
“If I pay money for rent, if a lease is a legally binding contract, their part is to offer me a safe and secure building,” Colson said. “Which I think they are in breach of.”
Colson wasn’t the only tenant in the Wadsworth building to feel this way, so he took action. So in early January, Colson and his neighbors in the building took a cue from other residents in the city and formed a tenants union.
A tenants union is a group of renters, typically in the same building, whose goal is to educate fellow tenants on their rights and responsibilities. Colson’s organizing effort now marks the second active tenants union registered with the city, joining the Trelawny Tenants Union which was organized in 2021. Another tenants union, organized by residents of Bellport Property Management, was active during the pandemic, but has dissolved and is no longer registered.
Sampson Spadafore, who was a member of the Bellport Tenants Union but no longer rents from the company, said that the effort to unionize fellow renters was successful because it helped provide protections to tenants who otherwise feared eviction if they complained as an individual to the city about rent increases or neglected maintenance.
According to Spadafore, the solidarity of a tenants union gives renters options when dealing with landlords. The union might keep records of conversations and note how quickly concerns are addressed — or if they are addressed at all — which allows the union to file complaints with the city on the tenant’s behalf, helping to protect their anonymity.
“It’s so easy for a landlord to target a tenant,” Spadafore said.
Spadafore now rents with Port Property, but lives in a different building than Colson. He had hoped to create a tenants union with all Port Property residents, but that became a challenge because the company owns so many buildings.
“I was hoping people in the buildings would form their own building unions, that would be easier,” he said.
That’s what Colson has done. The Wadsworth Building Tenants Union held their first union meeting on Jan. 23. Now, the plan is to come up with a collective list of grievances they can send to Port Property’s owner, Tom Watson.
Besides his individual complaint about mold and mailroom security, Colson did not elaborate on those specific grievances with the Phoenix, but alluded to a shared sense that the company’s communication methods were “a real problem” that has led to him and other tenants feeling miffed.
“It seems to us that they don’t feel like they have to keep tenants happy,” Colson said, adding that he feels like “we’re just here to pay rent.”
Multiple attempts to reach Watson and Port Property went unreturned. The company’s public relations firm, Longfellow Communications, said that Port Property “is working directly with the tenants union and, as a practice, does not discuss details about tenants with the media.”
Colson’s due to sign his next lease in May, though he said there has been a push from the company to keep tenants on a month-to-month basis. A preference for month-to-month leases, or “at will tenancy” has become more common among Portland landlords during the pandemic because its easier to evict tenants than it is those with annual leases.
While Portland’s rent control ordinance passed in 2020 changed the required notice to evict a renter from 30 to 90 days, landlords have found workarounds, says Oriana Farnham, a member of the legal team of Maine Equal Justice, and have sometimes preferred to pay fees to get around that.
The practice “leads to housing instability,” Farnham said, and “it’s particularly unfair that people can be evicted without doing anything wrong on whim of the landlord.”
Farnham has done considerable research on barriers to affordable housing and on temporary assistance for families in need of it. According to her, housing in Portland is “thorny at every step.” There is a power imbalance between renters and landlords, which is further skewed by landlords being allowed no-cause evictions in Maine. While one-year leases are around in Maine, she said it’s common to see renters who live on month-to-month leases.
While Portland does have some rent control, most housing statutes are from the state, so there’s only so far the city can go. When coupled with the fact so many low-income renters have now been priced out of Portland, what few protections Portland has put in place can no longer help them.
The Trelawny Tenants Union, composed of residents of the Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St. owned and operated by Geoffrey Rice, has been active since 2020. They are perhaps best known for their high-profile tenant, former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling, who helped found the union with fellow members of the Democratic Socialists of America who also live in the building.
Rice and Strimling had a legal battle over the former mayor’s opposition to being evicted from his Trelawny Building apartment. Rice gave Strimling a written non-renewal of his lease in August 2021, which Strimling viewed as direct retaliation for helping to form the union. A judge ruled otherwise, saying that Rice was within his rights to evict the former mayor under the current ordinance, which states that landlords can give no-cause evictions to at-will or month-to-month tenants.
Neither Rice nor staffers from his company Apartment Mart responded to requests for comment.
The Trelawny Tenants Union had fought Rice after receiving proposed rent increases under the ordinance passed by voters in 2020. Last February, the city’s newly formed rent board recommended the city fine Rice $15,350 for issuing rent increase notices that did not comply with the ordinance.
But Rice was not ultimately fined.
According to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin, the city’s Housing Safety Office did not agree with the Trelawny Tenants Union’s characterization of the incomplete notices as “illegal.”
“It’s our opinion that there is no such thing as an ‘illegal rent increase notice’,” Grondin said. “It’s either a proper notice, or it’s not proper and it’s void. It’s only a violation if the landlord increases the rent without a proper notice. It is not a violation to send an incomplete notice, as long as the rent is not raised before issuing proper notices.”
Matt Walker, a member of the Trelawny Tenants Union, was not encouraged by the proceedings.
“The rent board told them to fix problems, there was a fine, [but I am] not sure they held him accountable,” Walker said. “There was no consequence. Hopefully that doesn’t mean we’re back at the rent board in a month.”
Walker told the Phoenix that he hopes to see more unions pop up in coming years. The Trelawny building is fairly big, he said, so it makes sense to have a union for that building, but it might not be easy in places like the West End or Parkside, which often have smaller buildings with four or five units. He speculates that it could be more effective to start neighborhood tenants unions representing several buildings.“If they start a Parkside tenants union that could include multiple properties, it would be more successful,” Walker said. “I do worry smaller groups will think it’s not for them.”
Tenants are often fearful of “singling themselves out” when they make formal complaints against landlords. Walker pointed the finger at the city’s Housing and Safety Office for not being strong enough to enforce rent control, adding that if a tenant went to the HSO, the concern is that they would “rat them out” to the landlord.
“It’s scary, you don’t want to get kicked out,” he said. “Now tenants unions can do this on behalf of people. Tenants unions can say, ‘here is a list of problems.’”
Trelawny tenants like Walker have already begun getting notices about coming rent increases for 2023, he said. Under Portland’s ordinance, landlords can only increase rent once every 12 months, but must conform to certain restrictions. Currently, they can only increase rents by 7 percent of the base rate, and may not increase rent more than 5 percent of base rent for a new tenant when the previous tenant left voluntarily. The rate of legal increases is reassessed each year, but rents can never be raised by more than 10 percent.
Landlords are pushing back. This week, a group filed initial paperwork with the city in an effort to overturn the policy restricting landlords from raising rent when tenants leave voluntarily, the Portland Press Herald reported. If the effort — headed by Brit Vitalius of the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, a lobby group for landlords and property owners — gets on the ballot in June, landlords would be able to set new base rent at whatever they want, unrestricted by the five-percent increase currently in place.
LACK OF ENFORCEMENT
Spurred by citizen initiatives passed by voters, Portland has more rent regulation than it used to, but some of it is still fairly toothless. The city’s Rent Board, formed after the 2020 rent control ordinance passed, has only an advisory role, interpreting but not enforcing the city’s policies. Members of the rent board are appointed, not elected, and can’t force a landlord to pay fines in the event they are levied.
Amir Familmohammadi is a former rent board member who resigned when he moved out of Portland. In his final meeting last month, he chastised the city for not doing more to abide by the rent control ordinance and prevent illegal rent increases. Since the board is not involved in deciding what fair rental market conditions are, the work is challenging.
“Prior to the most recent rent control ordinance, there was no clear definition of fair rate of return and the board received numerous requests by landlords who wanted substantial increases under the scope of maintaining a fair rate of return,” he said.
City staff said they had fallen behind due to staffing issues.
Zach Lenhert, the city’s licensing and housing safety manager, said his department has 12 employees, but only five staffers review applications that come into the city. In January, Lenhert said there were over 4,500 applications accounting for more than 19,000 individual rental units that needed to be inspected.
“My advice would be to reach out to us,” Lenhert told the Phoenix, about tenants with complaints about landlords. “For any code violation, first contact the landlord, especially with a safety violation like you lost heat. Let the landlord know and give them the opportunity to correct it. If you’re not receiving cooperation from the landlord, then contact us.”
Spadafore, the former Bellport Tenants Union organizer, said that even with the rent control ordinances in place, there aren’t many checks and balances that protect renters from “huge spikes in rent” when landlords or property management companies aren’t “following the rules.”
“People feel hesitant to call in increases that were against the rent control measures,” Spadafore said. “You’re playing with someone’s housing.”
Representatives from Bellport did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a tight rental market with ever-steepening rents, the barriers for renters to find housing in Portland are getting tougher to clear.
Some rental companies, like Bellport, require a credit score of at least 680 to be considered, according to multiple listings. Some require tenants to provide the first and last months’ rent, plus a security deposit. Some put high security deposits on pets, if they don’t prohibit them outright. Many had charged application fees for rentals, but that practice was banned by a citizen initiative as of last December.
Two separate rent control measures, passed in 2020 and amended in 2022, provide some protections from these concerns, but some landlords have found workarounds. Now, the amount a landlord can charge in security deposit will be limited to no more than a month of rent. But nothing prevents a landlord from charging additional months’ rent.
Chris Marot, a lawyer specializing in evictions for Pine Tree Legal, said it’s become “increasingly common” to see landlords erect barriers to rental housing, like requiring high credit scores.
Such requirements from landlords are legal if they are applied neutrally and evenly, Marot said, but a credit score requirement that may seem neutral is disadvantageous to low-income renters.
“Those requirements are meant to ensure a tenant is able to be a good tenant and pay rent,” Marot stated. “Anything beyond that runs the risk of excluding more and more people from the community.”
Often, if a person has ever been evicted, a landlord won’t even consider them.
“So there’s a large set of barriers that are in place now that haven’t been before,” he said. “Landlords can be more choosy, which hurts low-income tenants.”
While rent control has been “helpful in prescribing what the balance should be,” Marot said, there are still people who try to take advantage of the ambiguity.
“And there will be tenants who are desperate enough to try to meet those demands, even if that’s virtually impossible,” he said.
Lenhert, the city’s licensing and housing safety manager, said that there’s nothing the city can do about restrictive requirements like credit scores, background checks or pet deposits. There are no ordinances on those kinds of issues, and it’s not “within our jurisdiction” for the city to regulate that, Lenhert said.
City Councilor Victoria Pelletier, a Parkside resident who represents District 2, is in a unique position. She’s a renter who will soon have to be looking for new housing. Pelletier’s building is being sold, and the challenge she faces is that she will have to restrict her search to another apartment in her district.
Pelletier pointed to the issue of requiring first month, last month, and security deposit in a city with such high rents as Portland, which could result in a person needing close to $6,000 just to move in somewhere.
“It’s just hard being on this end of the power dynamic, we are living at will to landlords,” Pelletier told the Phoenix. “With rising cost of living in Portland, and this is a renter-heavy city, we’re continuously running into people who aren’t sure where they are going to be living this time next year.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article misidentified Matt Walker as the president of the Trelawny Tenants Union. Walker is a member of the union and the point of contact with the city.
This story has also been updated to reflect that the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, formerly the Southern Maine Landlord Association, is collecting signatures to put a referendum question before voters for the June election, not November.