The Portland Phoenix

Landlords’ bid to limit rent control headed for June ballot

A sign advertising an apartment for rent on Forest Avenue in Portland, where the City Council has capped the application fee landlords can charge prospective tenants. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

A proposal to roll back part of the city’s rent control ordinance and permit landlords unchecked rent increases for new tenants will almost certainly be put before voters on the June ballot.

The proposed referendum — called “An Act to Improve Tenant Protections” — would weaken current protections put in place in recent rent control laws passed by voters in 2020 and 2022.

The initiative would look to eliminate the cap on how much landlords can increase rent when a new tenant moves in. Landlords are currently restricted from raising rents by more than five percent of the base rent for new tenants, except for smaller buildings that the owner also lives in. The change would allow landlords to raise rents as much as they want following a voluntary turnover, and the rest of the ordinance would remain unchanged.

The proposed referendum also states that the Housing Safety Office would investigate any report that a tenancy was not terminated voluntarily by the tenant. A manager from the Housing and Safety Office said in January that it was “behind” on investigating complaints from tenants about illegal rent increases because it was “really short-staffed.”

The proposed ordinance was put forth by the Rental Housing Alliance, a lobby group for rental housing property owners formerly known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The group’s initiative qualified for the ballot last week, turning in more than 4,000 signatures. More than 3,000 of those signatures were verified, and just 1,500 are required to make the ballot.

Opponents of this proposal say that it’s an attempt by landlords to subvert the will of the voters from last fall who supported stricter language in the ordinance that limits allowable rent increases.

This follows voters approving updates to the rent control ordinance last fall as part of a slate of proposals brought forth by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. The only successful measure of five citizen initiatives last fall, Question C strengthened an existing 2020 rent control ordinance, requiring 90-day notice for lease termination and rent increases and enacted the five-percent rent increases for voluntary turnovers.

Rose DuBois, chair of the Portland campaign committee for the DSA, said if this referendum were to pass, it would cause rents in Portland to “skyrocket in the midst of an historic housing crisis,” causing more workers and families to have to move from the city.

“Landlords are trying to take advantage of a low-turnout election to undo the rights and protections tenants have gained in recent years, and we’re looking forward to stopping them at the ballot box,” DuBois said via text.

The Rental Housing Alliance claims this change is a “common sense fix.”

“The amendment, while modest in scope, will have a significant positive impact for both existing tenants and landlords,” according to their website. “It removes incentives for landlords to increase rents for existing tenants and allows landlords to reset base rents in vacant units when a tenant has left voluntarily.”

The Council held a first reading of the referendum Monday, and may look to vote on March 20, following a public hearing, whether to send it to voters. Voters would then likely see the question at the June 13 municipal election, where they will also vote on the school budget.

The Committee to Improve Rent Control, a ballot question committee created by the Rental Housing Alliance, has already raised $25,000, including $15,000 from two groups associated with an address affiliated with Port Property Management among other businesses. The committee also received $5,000 from the Rental Housing Alliance and another $5,000 from Reliant Group Management, a San Francisco-based private equity and real estate firm.

Brit Vitalius, principal of the Vitalius Real Estate Group which is part of the RHA, is the principal officer for the Committee to Improve Rent Control. He did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to voting to put the measure out to voters, the Council could also vote to adopt the measure themselves or place a competing question on the June ballot.

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