In a housing crunch, South Portlanders organize for tenants’ rights
Squeezed by the rental housing crunch in the the Portland metro area that is hitting tenants with skyrocketing rents and surprise evictions, citizens south of the Fore River are taking action to protect their rights as renters. Now, the South Portland Tenants Association has the attention of its city council, who will hear their concerns in a workshop Monday night, a major step toward a potential vote.
The proposed South Portland ordinance would limit annual rent increases to the percent change in the Consumer Price Index, ban no-cause evictions (with a few exceptions, in which landlords must pay for relocation expenses), give tenants 90 days’ notice for evictions and rate increases, and prohibit discrimination against Section 8 voucher holders (which, at present, is legal). A rental unit database and Rent Board would also be created to administer the ordinance.
If it passes legal muster with the city and passed in its entirety by the council, it will become the most comprehensive tenant protection ordinance in the state, surpassing modest reforms that were passed on the other side of the Casco Bay bridge this past November.
Although a similarly ambitious plan was brought by Portland citizens’ groups to the city’s Housing Committee, the council ultimately adopted only a handful of incremental measures, including a tenant bill of rights, a 75-day notice for rent increases, the creation of a tenant-landlord commission, an acknowledgment form for tenants and landlords to sign showing they understand what an at-will lease is, and a pamphlet listing renters’ rights and responsibilities.
But pamphlets don’t pay the rent, nor does an acknowledgment form stop a landlord from selling a perfectly livable unit out from under an established tenant so it can be “flipped” into an upscale loft by an developer. Though these measures are better than nothing, they fail to address the insecurity and worry brought on by a sudden spike in rent and/or eviction that send longtime tenants scrambling for new housing with only a month’s notice – a near-impossibility in such a tight market, even for those with a little money saved up.
A policy born from personal experience
Chris Kessler, the person spearheading the ordinance proposal, founded the South Portland Tenants Association after he discovered just how few protections he had as a renter. When he and his family moved into a home in the Knightsville neighborhood a few years ago, the relationship with his landlord got off to a rocky start.
“There was no lock on the door when we moved in,” Kessler says. Thinking it an oversight, he contacted his landlord. “She said, ‘Why would you want a lock on your door?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
The reluctance to fulfill basic maintenance requests continued, according to Kessler, but he dealt with it for four years; the rent was affordable, and his family was established in the neighborhood. Things came to a head, however, when he found an empty bottle of RoundUp on a table outside.
“There was no warning, no signs put up, nothing. We have two small children who play outside. That was not okay.”
He texted his landlord, asking to at least be notified next time before having dangerous chemicals sprayed outside. The landlord’s response? “If you don’t like it, then leave.”
The next day, Kessler received a 30-day notice to vacate, finding himself suddenly thrust back into the rental market for the first time in four years. It was now a different world. The Kesslers had been paying under $1,000 a month, but now the cheapest two-bedroom in their neighborhood was on the market for $1,450. They also had a daughter in pre-K in South Portland who was preparing to start Kindergarten at the elementary school.
Money, however, was not the biggest obstacle. “We were looking all over and getting rejected. There were ten, twenty applications per listing,” Kessler says. After attending several viewings, he started seeing a disturbing trend – a noticeable negative attitude toward prospective tenants who had children with them. “There was definitely an element of discrimination going on.”
Thirty frustrating days came and went, and the Kesslers still didn’t have a new place to move. The landlord lawyered up. Things got “ugly and extremely disruptive.” Finally, he heard about an opening in the neighborhood via word-of-mouth and was fortunate to lock it up. By then, more than two months had passed.
“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. No one should have to go through this,’” Kessler says. So he started researching tenants’ rights, and found that current law does very little to protect renters from situations like the one he had endured. He started talking to neighbors to raise awareness, and soon found he was far from alone. Awareness turned into advocacy, the SPTA, and, now, a progressive draft ordinance that has the attention of leaders in South Portland.
“There’s a slow mass eviction going on here,” Kessler says. “I hope the city council has the courage to stand up to it.”
An unsustainable trend
Flipping rentals is a lucrative business in such a period of booming demand, but the human and community costs are high when residents are displaced. The absence of robust protections at the state or federal level leaves low- and fixed-income renters vulnerable to the whims of the market and the wiles of developers. (With waiting lists for subsidized housing that are measured in years, many have no choice.) Cities that fail to step in and offer such protections fall prey to gentrification, trading neighborhood character and established residents for the faux charm replicated in almost every city of any size in America. When the upward spiral of property values gets out of control, there is little an established property owner can do but pass his rising tax bill off on his tenants. Or, worse, sell his building to a distant LLC that will raise rents even more and spend its profits elsewhere.
While it’s great to live in a desirable and thriving metro area, as opposed to one that is contracting, the housing market has not kept pace with population growth. According to a Comprehensive Housing Market Analysis released by HUD that studied housing data in the Portland region (Cumberland, York and Sagadahoc counties), the rental housing vacancy rate dropped from 8.3% in April 2010 to 5.5% in October 2015, a rating of “slightly tight.” In Portland/South Portland proper, the rate was just 3%, and by all accounts, has continued to drop. The apartment vacancy rate was even lower, at 2.9%, and some reports have it below 2% at present. Or, in the official parlance, “tight.”
The study estimated that it would take 2,000 new units to satisfy the projected demand for apartments over the subsequent three years. At the time of the study, however, only 450 units were under construction. Not surprisingly, the effective market rent spiked 8% in a single year between 2014-15. Without a matching rise in wages and with many renters living on a fixed income, that jump is tough to absorb. Even in 2014, whose rents now look like a fantasy of reasonableness, nearly two-thirds of renters could not afford a two-bedroom unit for less than 30% of their combined household income.
That number has almost certainly risen. For a couple working full-time at the new minimum wage of $9/hour to pay less than 30% of their combined income on rent, they would have to find a two-bedroom place for under $864/month, an unlikely prospect, to say the least.
The workshop will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13, at the Redbank Community Center, 95 MacArthur Circle West in South Portland. For more information, visit the SPTA’s Facebook page.
Photo via Flickr/Eric Richardson.
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