After 10 months the Portland Rent Board finally used its authority to impose penalties for violations of the city rent control ordinance in an appeal from a group of tenants.
Whether the penalties can be enforced remains to be seen.
The Trelawny Tenants’ Union accused landlord Geoffrey Rice of multiple violations of the ordinance, including illegal rent increases and tax rate adjustments at the 655 Congress St. building.
The original appeal was heard in a five-hour meeting of the board on Jan. 26. The board reached its decision on Feb. 9, although it is still working through complications of the ordinance.
Board members still hold differing opinions about their jurisdiction, Board Chair Austin Sims said, due to unclear language in the ordinance. He added that some powers the board has been granted might not have standing in court, although Sims said the ordinance clearly gives the board the ability to assess fines – “though admittedly without a clear mechanism for enforcement.”
The board itself can’t enforce the collection of the fines it imposes. If a landlord refuses to pay the city would have to pursue the fines in court, Associate Corporation Counsel Anne Torregrosa said.
In the case of the Trelawny Building, the board determined there was a pattern of repetition by landlord Geoffrey Rice. They recommended Rice be fined $15,350, a figure proposed by TTU based on charges for each violation.
The rent control ordinance says landlords can be subject to a fine of $100 per day that violations are left unresolved, so board member Buddy Moore said the figure of $15,350 is a compromise.
“There needs to be some avenue of accountability here,” Moore said.
Josef Kijewski, attending his first meeting as the board’s new District 2 representative, said historically someone could get away with violations such as these, but Portland’s rent control ordinance is meant to prevent that.
“The point of this ordinance is to change that,” he said, “so that good landlords have the right support, and landlords who aren’t responsible are held accountable for it.”
Rice’s attorney Paul Bulger had argued that Rice had no intention of misleading tenants and stayed within the mandates of the ordinance.
He acknowledged on Jan. 26 that “mistakes had been made” by Rice and cited confusion stemming from how new the Rent Control Ordinance was as the explanation for invalid rent increases, but argued Rice’s decisions regarding increases for taxes were viable.
The ordinance limits rental increases to 5 percent upon tenant turnover. Bulger said eight tenants received rent increases over that cap in 2021, but they have since been refunded. The smallest of those refunds was $17.75, while the largest was $300.
The Rent Board also cited flaws in how Rice applied a tax rate rent adjustment, which originally had all tenants receiving the same increase regardless of the size of their unit, even though the ordinance states the TRRA is supposed to be determined individually. Rice also factored in areas of the building that are inaccessible to tenants, such as its basement and commercial space.
Sims said the board has plenty to learn but he remains encouraged by the “insight, perspective, and diligence” of his fellow board members.
“I feel honored to serve the people of Portland with them,” he said.
The Rent Board meets next on Feb. 23.