The tenants of a 24-unit Parkside apartment complex, most of whom are low-income or mentally disabled, are being evicted by the New Jersey-based company that owns the buildings in what city officials and housing advocates say is more fallout from Portland’s overheated housing market.
The tenants were told Dec. 23 that they had to leave by March 1 so the new owner can renovate the aging buildings. Although some occupants have found new housing in recent weeks, city officials met with social service providers Monday to figure out a plan to help 14 residents who have nowhere else to go a week before the deadline on the eviction notices. Most of the residents are receiving housing assistance.
“These are low-income and vulnerable tenants who are in a very high-priced market,” said Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal, which provides free legal aid to low-income people.
City officials said that most of the affected tenants are low-income or are struggling with mental illness, or both.
Evictions have been happening throughout the city’s rental neighborhoods as a shortage of housing has pushed up rents and created a market for investors to buy and refurbish old or neglected apartment buildings. But the mass eviction of so many people at one time is unusual.
McGovern said she handled over 1,200 disputed eviction cases in Portland in 2015. “It’s fair to say we’re seeing more of it,” she said.
The situation highlights the need for the city to take aggressive action to protect renters, especially during times when demand for housing is high, McGovern said. She has suggested banning no-cause evictions such as those on Grant Street and prohibiting landlords from turning down tenants who rely on government housing vouchers, among other things.
Rents for the Grant Street units were a little more than $800 a month.
While the tenants have been looking for weeks to find other housing, there are increasingly few units in that price range left in the city. A Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald special report, “Welcome to Portland: No Vacancy,” found that market rents in the city had increased 40 percent in the past five years and that low-income renters are facing evictions and rent increases as the hot market fuels the construction of high-end apartments and condos.
Tenants without leases or whose leases have expired can be evicted for no reason with 30 days’ notice. McGovern is working with some tenants on legal options, although it was unclear if any will challenge the evictions in court.
PROPERTY BUYER’S PLANS UNCLEAR
Advanced Energy Group, a company based in Old Tappan, New Jersey, purchased 61-69 Grant St. from a local property owner last spring. The corporation is doing business in Maine under the name AEG Holdings.
It’s not yet clear what the new owner plans to do with the Parkside property and whether the units will be renovated as apartments or converted into condos. John Le, identified in Maine incorporation documents as managing director of AEG Holdings, did not return a call for comment, nor did Steve Fowler, whose SHW Properties, LLC sold the complex.
Mayor Ethan Strimling, who attended Monday’s meeting to help the 14 residents find places to live, said he will ask the City Council’s Housing Committee to consider adopting policies, including those suggested by McGovern, to prevent other people from being evicted.
“We have to try to take care of the people affected by these policies and then see how we prevent this from happening again,” Strimling said. “Everything is on the table. It’s landlords like this that give everyone a bad name.”
He noted that the evictions are occurring in the middle of the winter.
“I don’t think anyone in Portland thinks it’s acceptable,” he said.
According to city records, the Grant Street complex has a history of building and fire code violations, including cockroaches, bed bugs, a lack of fire and carbon monoxide detectors, and faulty fire escapes. On Jan. 27, police acted on tips from neighbors and raided a unit at 61 Grant St., seizing 74.8 grams of crack cocaine and $1,053 in cash and detaining 13 people.
FEW OPTIONS AS DEADLINE LOOMS
On Monday afternoon, several tenants said they do not know where they are going to go.
Roger Hunnewell, 51, has lived in a one-bedroom apartment at 63 Grant St. for four years. He gets assistance for his $820 monthly rent from Shalom House, a nonprofit that helps people with mental illness. He said he found out he was being evicted around the same time he was laid off from his job as a prep cook – all right before the holidays.
He’s been looking for a new apartment since then, but hasn’t found anything within his price range that also would allow his cat.
Hunnewell said he’s lived on the streets before and would be willing to again, if it wasn’t for his cat.
“I don’t like to take people to court, but I don’t have a choice right now. I don’t have a place,” he said.
Michael Kempton, 36, has lived in his one-bedroom apartment at 69 Grant St. for six years. He’s been on General Assistance while he applies for disability, he said. Kempton said he has back problems and mental health issues, including severe anxiety. Not knowing where he’s going to live hasn’t helped.
“I’m really, really stressed,” he said.
On Monday, Kempton was carrying bags of trash out of the building, trying to clean out his apartment in anticipation of leaving. He figures he’ll probably end up in a hotel at first.
“I wish we had more time,” Kempton said. “(The landlord) is taking advantage of the people who have the least resources, the least amount of money.”
Anna Teague was preparing to move out of her apartment, carrying in empty boxes with the help of Chrissy Whitlock, a case manager from Shalom House.
Teague spoke briefly Monday, saying she has secured another small apartment, but that the eviction and move are difficult for her as she also battles cancer.
City staff members are working with other social service providers, including Preble Street, a nonprofit that operates a soup kitchen and shelter, to secure new housing for tenants who are still looking, but finding units the tenants can afford is clearly a challenge.
A LITTLE EXTRA TIME FOR TENANTS
Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, recently testified before the City Council’s Housing Committee that over 50 percent of tenants with housing vouchers have difficulty finding apartments in the city because landlords can now get more for rent than the vouchers provide.
McGovern, the attorney, said tenants who have nowhere else to go will not be forced to leave March 1. The landlord is required to initiate a court proceeding, which could buy tenants at least another few weeks.
“Tenants don’t have to leave until there’s a court order telling them to leave,” said McGovern, who is handling the cases of some of the residents but was not authorized to discuss details. She said the next eviction court date is March 10, but residents who are offering a defense could have until March 19 or longer before they have to leave or potentially face trespassing charges.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers contributed to this report.