Rent control proponents say Portland tenants must mobilize against landlord-backed referendum

Photo of Portland by Corey Templeton

In November, Portland voters approved a ballot measure that limits rent increases to a maximum of 5% after a tenant voluntarily leaves a unit and a new resident comes in. Proponents say that initiative, along with a referendum passed in 2020 to cap rent increases at the rate of inflation and create a board to consider exceptions to price hikes, has allowed Maine’s largest city to implement some of the best protections for tenants on the East Coast amid a pronounced statewide affordable housing crisis. 

The latest protection against increasing rents, however, could be short-lived if a group of landlords gets their way. 

On June 13, Portland voters will consider another referendum, this one spearheaded by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, previously known as the Southern Maine Landlord Association. The group, which unsuccessfully sued the city of Portland over the 2020 rent control referendum, spent the winter gathering the signatures needed to place its measure on the June ballot, even as some residents accused the organization’s signature collectors of using deceptive and misleading tactics

The proposed referendum triggered by that campaign would change the part of the 2022 law passed by Portland voters that established 5% as the maximum rent increase a landlord can impose on a new tenant after a previous tenant leaves voluntarily. Under the proposal, property owners would instead be able to increase rent as much as they want in such situations. 

Proponents of rent control are worried about the ballot measure. 

“This is really bad. It’s a pretty clear attempt to undo the rent control laws that Portland has overwhelmingly passed over the last couple of years, twice now,” said Rose DuBois, chair of the Campaign for a Livable Portland, an initiative of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which spearheaded the push for the 2020 and 2022 laws. 

Data on how Portland’s rent control initiatives have worked thus far is limited, given that the laws were only passed in the last couple of years. However, the city’s rent board reported that from January 2021 to November 2021, the price of rent-controlled units in the city rose by an average of 1.6% versus an increase in prices of 2.5% for units not subject to rent control rules. 

Sam Spadafore, a tenants’ rights advocate in Portland who opposes June’s landlord-backed referendum, said enforcement of the rent control regulations by the city has been an issue. Still, Spadafore said the measures at least create a legal obligation for landlords to undergo a process before they are allowed to raise rents by a large amount. 

However, in a statement, Rep. David Boyer, a Republican from Poland who owns two housing units in Portland and is involved with the Rental Housing Alliance campaign, argued that the current rent control law needs fixing and asked Portland voters to support the group’s Question A on the ballot.

“The current policy has resulted in tenants having their rents raised yearly,” Boyer said. “Previously, most housing providers only raised the rent once a tenant voluntarily vacated the unit. Yes on A will align Portland’s rent control ordinance with similar rent control laws across the country, while still retaining all existing tenants protections including limits on rent raises and eviction protections.”

But opponents of the June referendum argue that rent control has prevented expensive housing prices in Portland from going even higher. A study from October — before the 5% rent increase cap for a voluntary apartment turnover was passed — found that Portland had among the highest median rents in the country, ranking 18th for the cost of a one-bedroom apartment among cities across the country.

“Rents are already very high in Portland, and the current rent control law is helping stabilize them so they don’t skyrocket even more,” DuBois said. “Undoing that stabilization will allow the rents to just skyrocket, so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Landlords spending big money on referendum  

In a sign of how big a priority the push to roll back rent control is for real estate and property interests, money has poured in to support the proposal. The Committee to Improve Rent Control — a group associated with the Rental Housing Alliance — reported on an April 10 financial report that it had raised nearly $80,000 in support of the referendum. 

Much of that has come in large chunks from landlords or landlord-affiliated groups, including $15,000 from the Rental Housing Alliance itself and $10,000 from the property management company 132 Marginal Way LLC. Furthermore, the Greater Portland Board of Realtors conducted a survey for the committee that amounted to an in-kind contribution of a little over $29,000. 

In contrast, Maine DSA’s Livable Portland Campaign reported raising a little over $5,900 on its April financial report. That type of discrepancy is reminiscent of 2022, when Maine DSA pushed for the successful rent control measure but was defeated on referendums that would have raised the city’s minimum wage to $18 an hour over three years — including for tipped workers — and limited short-term rentals. Maine DSA and grassroots organizers were outspent by corporate opponents 54-1 in that election.  

DuBois criticized the amount of money landlord groups and real estate interests are putting toward the upcoming June referendum. 

“I would just point out that if they have all this money to spend on an election campaign, then maybe we don’t need to be letting them raise rents,” DuBois said. 

Advocates call for mobilization

In response to the significant money being spent by real estate groups, advocates said those who oppose the referendum and want to keep Portland’s rent control laws in place must get organized. 

Spadafore said the stakes are extremely high, arguing that the outcome of the ballot measure could shape the future of the city for years to come. 

“The issue is, we’re not going to have people who work in Portland be able to live here” if the referendum passes, Spadafore said. “We’re already seeing that happen. People are moving to other cities, and then that also in turn … increases the rent in other cities and then we continue to perpetuate this issue of a housing crisis.” 

Spadafore said people who want to see Portland remain affordable must show up and vote in the June 13 election. Landlords and their allies will likely come out in force to vote, making it crucial that tenants do so as well, Spadafore said.

“I just want it to be really clear that people have so much to lose with this one and it only takes a little bit of time to show up to vote,” Spadafore said, urging people to bring their friends to the polls as well. 

DuBois said Maine DSA is starting a field operation in opposition to the referendum, making phone calls, knocking on doors, mailing postcards and passing out flyers. 

DuBois and Spadafore both said the referendum being in June during an off year is a challenge, as many people may not be thinking about voting during that time.

That concern was echoed by Tobin Williamson, advocacy manager for the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC), who said off-cycle elections often feature less participation, particularly among communities of color. 

Williamson said that MIRC worries the Rental Housing Alliance referendum would exacerbate Portland’s housing availability and affordability crisis at a time when shelter beds are being filled rapidly and many asylum-seekers — who can’t work for several months due to federal immigration law — are arriving in Portland.  

“Reducing the already scant availability of affordable housing would also have negative impacts on Portland’s economy, since some workers would no longer be able to afford to live near their work,” he said. “Moreover, raising rents in Portland would hardly be a solution to Maine’s housing crisis; if nothing else, it would make it even worse.” 

Portland is just one part of Maine’s housing crisis 

Along with Portland, prices are high across Maine, as fair market rents have risen in Maine every year since 2020 and are projected to rise in 2023 once more, according to MaineHousing. In addition, the state continues to grapple with a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units, with an estimated 27,000 Maine households on the waitlist for Section 8 vouchers. All of that comes as the number of eviction filings in the state jumped 27% in 2022 over 2021. 

In response to those issues, advocates partnered with Maine legislators to introduce a slate of housing justice bills this year. Within the slate are measures to prevent retaliatory evictions, bar landlords from discriminating against tenants with a previous eviction, increase the notice at-will tenants must receive before an eviction, provide more notice to tenants for rent increases, ban rental application fees, and ensure that those facing eviction have access to legal representation, among others. 

The bills, however, have sparked an onslaught of opposition from landlords that seems to be having an impact. Last month, the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee advanced a number of those bills after introducing amendments that significantly reduced the scope of the proposals. 

Photo of Portland by Corey Templeton. 

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