Advocates pushing for rent stabilization in Portland were thrown a curveball Monday when was reported that the citizens initiative submitted by Fair Rent Portland containing over 2,500 signatures was not received in time for consideration on the November 7 ballot. According to Fair Rent Portland (and confirmed by the city), the group had been told by city officials that they must submit signatures 90 days before the ballot — August 7 — but according to a "clerical error," the deadline had been weeks prior.
While city officials were working toward a next step Tuesday, many expressed confidence that the error in City Hall would ultimately not affect Fair Rent Portland's proposal for a referendum question on rent stabilization in November.
"The council is now working with the city attorney [Danielle West-Chuhta] to see how we might be able to rectify the situation," wrote City Councilor Justin Costa to the Phoenix. "I have heard nothing but full support for trying to get these items on the November ballot in one way or another."
In a statement, Fair Rent Portland said that they were informed multiple times over several weeks by the city that they were required to submit 1500 signatures on a date three months before the November 7 election date to be considered on the referendum ballot. They submitted the signatures the morning of August 7.
"We at Fair Rent Portland are surprised, disappointed, and shocked to learn of the erroneous instructions provided to us by the City Clerk's office," wrote Fair Rent Portland in a statement. "Our organization was in close communication with the City Clerk from the start of the campaign, who on multiple occasions confirmed that if at least 1,500 valid signatures were submitted by August 7, the referendum would be reviewed by the council in early September and be included the November 7 ballot."
The group cited “scores of volunteers, hundreds of hours of donated time, and thousands of engaged citizens" involved in the process. Despite the supposed missed deadline, officials appeared to recognize the severity of the error the referendum process and the necessity of squaring the issue.
"I am truly sorry about this mistake," wrote City Councilor Jill Duson. "Our clerk is a dedicated public servant who works incredibly hard to preserve the integrity and transparency of the elections process. This is an outcome that none of us anticipated or would have wished for.”
"Corporation counsel is working to review and recheck to identify any possible action the council might take to fix this,” continued Duson. “We are absolutely thinking outside of the box and hope to come up with a solution."
Sentiments from city officials echoed the perspective that the city could effectively suspend the rules and come up with "a creative solution" to get the Fair Rent Portland initiative on the ballot in light of the error.
"The error doesn't invalidate the citizens' initiative," wrote City Communications Director Jessica Grondin. "It just doesn't make it possible for November 7 through the established rules for citizens' initiatives. However, I can tell you that nobody wants this postponed, not the city nor the petitioners, so at this point the City Attorney is researching the options available to the Council."
If passed, the proposed ordinance submitted to the city on August 7 would allow landlords to increase rent each year at the rate of inflation (an estimated two percent) and provide additional protections for renters and landlords. The ordinance would exempt landlords with fewer than six units.
Last week, Fair Rent Portland committee member Bre Chamberlain appeared on a panel on NPR's On Point Live! Chamberlain linked the fight for affordable housing in Portland to the national fight for health care.
"It's very hard for me to take what's happening with the Trump presidency and not [link it] to what's happening in Portland and what secure housing looks like," said Chamberlain. "In regards to health care, we know that when people have financial insecurity, they will always put housing over health care. You have to live somewhere. And when it comes down to it, you can put off that pesky cough or a lymph, but you can't put off the need for housing. So what that does over the long run, it makes for greater instability over the long run because you have mounting bills. And with unaddressed health care concerns, you have people getting sicker. They pop up in emergency rooms, and it becomes a really vicious cycle of greater financial insecurity."
Richard Barringer, a professor emeritus at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, also appeared on the On Point Live! panel.
"An affordable housing problem is actually a welcome thing to have," said Barringer on the panel. "I say that because housing is certainly affordable in most of Maine. In Portland, it's not. It's not because of the demand and the limited supply. Portland has one of the oldest housing stocks in New England. So when it gets very popular, prices go up. It's that simple."
Barringer added that Portland was more financially stable at any time since the Civil War, and agreed that one of the reasons for the surge in prices is that baby boomers have found the city to be a fine place to live after retirement.
On the panel, Chamberlain addressed that while her appearance was "sort of representing" Fair Rent Portland as well as the population of renters in the city (roughly 60 percent). She also addressed the that issues of housing insecurity have historically disproportionately affected people of color. "I'm able to be here and speak about this because I'm white, I'm privileged, and I have housing security right now."
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