Portland appoints Rent Board as landlord lawsuit looms

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The City Council has unanimously appointed seven people to the city’s new Rent Board, which will manage tenant protections and rent control.

The board, created by a voter referendum that passed last November over opposition from most councilors, is being challenged by a landlord group.

The city received 27 applications for the Rent Board, which includes three tenants, three landlords, and one homeowner. The tenants are Peaks Island resident Christopher Moore, Elliot Simpson, and Elias Kann. The landlords are Michelle Dunham, Ian McCracken, and Barbara Vestal. The homeowner is Austin Sims.

The seven represent each of the city’s five voting districts, plus two at-large members.

Moore and Dunham will each serve one year, McCracken and Kann will serve two years, and Simpson, Sims, and Vestal will each serve three-year terms. The council’s Nominating Committee interviewed the applicants and unanimously recommended the seven candidates.

The Rent Board will hear tenant-landlord disputes, and will also handle requests from landlords for rent increases.

The city’s rent control ordinance caps how much a landlord can charge a tenant, and prohibits rent increases beyond 10 percent a year. Landlords who don’t raise rent in a year can bank those increases for future use.

The rent control ordinance was one of several citizen initiatives backed by the progressive group People First Portland last fall. The measure was approved with support from more than 58 percent of voters.

It is now the subject of a legal fight, however, brought against the city by the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The Foreside Tenants Union and People First Portland have filed as intervenors.

In a press release from People First Portland, Foreside Tenants Union founder Sherri Lysy said the fact that landlords would sue to be able to continue raising rents during a pandemic is proof the protections provided in the ordinance are needed.

“Our community has a right to safe and secure housing,” Lysy said. “An ethical standard needs to be implemented because without regulation corporate landlords will continue to exploit market rates at the cost of stability for struggling renters.”

Ben Gaines, an attorney representing People First Portland and the Foreside Tenants Union, said the two organizations are “standing up for the rights of every renter in Portland to be secure in their homes,” as well as the right of voters to make law.

The SMLA filed its lawsuit Jan. 28 in Maine Superior Court in Portland, after notifying the city about its concerns with the ordinance and the city’s guidance on the subject. Mary Costigan, an attorney from Bernstein Shur, wrote the letter on behalf of the landlords.

“We fully appreciate the difficult position the City is in when it is expected to interpret a lengthy referendum that it did not draft,” Costigan wrote. “Nevertheless, the referendum is full of gaps, inconsistencies, and illegalities, and we ask that the City revisit the guidance on this matter and reconsider implementation.”

The proposed 18-story apartment building at 200 Federal St. would occupy most of the block between Federal, Congress, Temple and Exchange streets. (Courtesy Redfern Properties)

City Council advances 18-story Old Port apartment building

What would be the tallest building in the state cleared a hurdle Monday when Portland city councilors unanimously approved two zoning amendments for the project.

Councilors approved a zoning change and amended the height overlay map in the downtown area for the 18-story apartment building planned at 200 Federal St. by Redfern Properties.

Under existing zoning, a new building would be allowed to be 150 feet tall with a 40-foot architectural cap on top. This project will use the full 190 feet.

Redfern co-owner Jonathan Culley told the council the building between Temple and Exchange streets would have 265 units of “rental housing for working people.” He estimated rents would range from $1,300-$2,000 a month.

Culley described the zoning change requests as very subtle, and city staff agreed. He also said this building will fill a need for more workforce housing downtown, where younger people and people new to the city would want to live, work, and shop.

Councilors said they had heard concerns from the nearby Portland House of Music & Events regarding the possibility of complaints from residents of the new building about noise from the music venue. Culley said his company has met with owners of the venue to better understand noise transmission issues.

“Redfern is committed to being a good neighbor,” he said.

The council vote is not the final step for this project, which still has to go through the Historic Preservation Board and the Planning Board’s site plan review process.

Culley has said the hope is to have final approval by May or June and to break ground late this year.

— Colin Ellis