Portland's City Hall in March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
Portland's City Hall in March 2023. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)
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Portland City Councilors voted unanimously Monday night to send a proposal drafted by a landlords’ group to eliminate a cap on rent increases to the June ballot. 

The initial proposal, a citizens initiative launched by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine (RHA), would remove the cap on the amount a landlord can increase rent after the voluntary departure of a tenant. It would effectively undo part of a 2022 citizen initiative that put a nine percent cap on rent increases after voluntary turnovers, which strengthened the rent control ordinance approved by voters in 2020.

Councilors changed the language of the proposed ordinance from “An Act to Improve Tenant Protections” to “An Act to Amend Rent Control and Tenant Protections” to better reflect the intentions of the initiative. They also voted to strike language they found subjective which claimed this proposal would bring Portland into alignment with the state and other municipalities.

Councilors also rejected an alternative measure proposed by two councilors. Much of the five-and-a-half hour meeting went toward that discussion, a counterproposal by Councilors Regina Phillips and Anna Trevorrow which would have set a competing measure on the June 13 ballot that would have capped base-rent increases at 20 percent when a tenant left voluntarily, and required landlords to pay a “relocation fee” of two months’ rent or $2,000 — whichever figure was greater — to a tenant before terminating any tenancy without cause.

“I followed the process I thought I was supposed to follow,” Phillips said at the meeting, defending her competing measure. “To me it’s great language to protect the landlord and the tenant.”

That proposal failed 6-3, with Councilor Victoria Pelletier joining Phillips and Trevorrow. 

“It’s a city of renters, and it’s really scary being a renter, being an at-will tenant,” Pelletier said, adding there was no “perfect way” to talk about the power imbalance between landlords and their tenants.

Roughly 40 people spoke at a public hearing before the Council’s vote, a majority in support of the alternative measure. At times, Mayor Kate Snyder struggled to keep public comments on track, reminding residents that they were not supposed to be discussing the merits or language of the RHA’s proposal.

But that did not deter some from discussing the landlords’ proposal. Leo Hilton, a member of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said the RHA’s proposal was an attempt to improve the bottom dollar for landlords, and wasn’t actually aimed at protecting tenants. 

“If this is to improve tenant protections, my question is, to improve it for who?” Hilton said.

Hilton and several others echoed complaints that others had filed with the city that RHA’s signature-gatherers deliberately misled Portlanders about what the referendum would do.

Brit Vitalius, president of the RHA, also spoke in support of putting their proposal to voters, saying that anyone who felt confused by the petitioners “shouldn’t have signed.” 

State Rep. Grayson Lookner, who represents Portland in the Legislature, gave his support of the competing measure that was voted down by council. Lookner apologized on behalf of state government for not doing enough to address the housing crisis, adding that while he understands it’s “not easy” to be a landlord in Portland, it was much harder to be a tenant facing eviction who doesn’t know where they will go.

Others asked the city to put forward the proposal from the RHA. Jonathan Culley, owner of the real estate development firm Redfern Properties, said it was “shameful” that housing policies have become so “politicized.”

“The petition does not change any protections for tenants,” Culley said, adding it only impacts a unit when a tenant voluntarily moves out.

There is recent precedent for city councilors to draft a competing measure for a ballot question drafted by citizens initiative. Portland’s city council did so in 2021 to add an alternative ballot question when a group favoring smaller shelters in the city put forward a referendum on limiting the size of homeless shelters in Portland.


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