Portland Rent Board wrestles with claims against landlord

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The Portland Rent Board on Jan. 26 tabled a decision after a five-hour hearing on complaints from tenants who claim their landlord violated the city’s rent control ordinance. 

The Trelawny Tenants Union, composed of tenants from the Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St., said landlord Geoffrey Rice has unfairly raised rents by charging tenants for space they can’t access and overcharging for an allowable tax rate rent adjustment.

Trelawny Building, 655 Congress St.
Portland’s Rent Board is considering complaints by tenants at 655 Congress St. against landlord Geoffrey Rice. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)

The tenants union presentation included comment from former Mayor Ethan Strimling, who told the Rent Board members that after speaking with the city Housing Safety Office “you are our last hope to deal with the problems we are confronting.”

Strimling has received an eviction notice from Rice and has charged it is in retaliation for his work to organize the tenants union.

Under the rent control ordinance, landlords are allowed to increase rents to accommodate property tax increases. These adjustments are supposed to be specific to each unit.

Tenants argued that the increases implemented by Rice violate the ordinance because the additional charges are based on the inclusion of spaces that aren’t part of their individual units, such as Rice’s apartment and commercial space in the building.

Rice’s attorney, Paul Bulger, told the board Rice concedes that including those spaces in his rent increase calculations was an error. Since the ordinance is still new, he said, “mistakes have been made.”

The board met in an executive session at the beginning of the meeting to determine whether it had jurisdiction on the matter because this was the first time it has heard an appeal like this, Chair Austin Sims said.

He wrote in an email that he agrees with statements during the meeting that this case will be an important precedent going forward, and one of the reasons for tabling a decision is to allow the board to do its due diligence.

Sims said the board had to deliberate over allowing Bulger to participate and share documents submitted after the deadline for the meeting. Tabling was necessary to give tenants the opportunity to read those submissions, he said.

Tenant Matt Walker noted it is the responsibility of tenants to report rent control violations. While the Trelawny Tenants Union was proactive, he said, there could be many more that haven’t been identified. 

The tenants union submitted its complaint to the Rent Board in late December, with signatures from 22 tenants. It argues that Rice should be fined for the alleged violations, an action the Rent Board is authorized to take.

In addition to protecting tenants, however, Bulger said the rent control ordinance is intended to ensure landlords can still get a return on their investment, which is why landlords must increase their rents when they can each year.

Last November, City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin confirmed that the Housing Safety Office had recognized “unintended consequences” of the city’s rent freeze, including patterns that showed landlords were terminating leases to create turnover and provide opportunities to increase rents. 

At that time she said HSO was in the process of working on ways to resolve no-cause evictions but was unsure when proposals would get to the City Council or the Rent Board.

The Rent Board will meet next on Feb. 9.