The mass evictions of low-income and mentally ill tenants in Portland’s Parkside neighborhood has amplified calls to protect renters amid a housing shortage in Maine’s largest city.

“Not in the 25 years I have lived here have I seen it like this,” Mayor Ethan Strimling said about the need to focus on tenants’ rights. “The crisis is not simply supply and demand. You have to make sure you’re protecting people already in the market.”‘

All 20 tenants in the apartment complex at 61-69 Grant St. were under a March 1 deadline to leave so the owner, who purchased the buildings last year, could conduct a major renovation. Fourteen of those tenants still had nowhere else to go last week as city officials and tenant advocates scrambled to find alternative housing.

Those tenants were given more time to find housing after the landlord, John Le, reached an agreement with Strimling that includes the city providing assistance to some of the tenants. Le is the local manager of AEG Holdings LLC, which is affiliated with a New Jersey investment firm.

The prospect that 14 people – half of whom have mental illness – could be forced onto the streets during the winter pushed the issue of tenants’ rights into the spotlight as the city studies ways to loosen up a tight housing market that features few vacancies, rising rents and an influx of investors looking to upgrade the city’s old housing stock.

Frank D’Alessandro, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal, which provides free legal assistance to low-income people, said the Grant Street situation provides an opening for the city to take action such as banning no-cause evictions, like those at Grant Street, and preventing discrimination against tenants who use housing vouchers.

“I feel like there is a real opportunity to do something for low-income people. But we also face a real danger of not stepping up to the plate and doing what needs to be done for this population and winding up with an even bigger mess,” said D’Alessandro.

Landlords typically need to demonstrate misconduct to evict tenants who have leases, but they can evict at-will tenants – those without leases – for no reason at all as long as they give 30 days’ notice.

D’Alessandro described no-cause evictions as a “huge problem.” In addition to pushing lower-income tenants into a difficult market, such evictions usually also mean the loss of affordable housing units that are being replaced by or renovated into more upscale properties. That, in turn, could lead to a less diverse city, he said.

“We find that problematic and disturbing because Portland is going through a building boom” in the luxury housing market, he said. “It’s becoming more prosperous and there has to be room for low-income people who don’t benefit from that.”

Landlords, however, are concerned that the city will overreact to the market and to incidents such as the Parkside evictions.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlords Association, said he is open to having a conversation about extending the notification requirements for evictions, as well as creating some kind of rental hearing board or a position at City Hall to mediate minor landlord-tenant disputes.

But Vitalius said landlords need to have their private property rights protected so they can make investments in their properties and charge rents that will allow them to recoup those expenses. Landlord expenses have increased with new city policies requiring a $35-per-unit registration fee and a new stormwater fee, he said.

He opposes an outright ban on no-cause evictions, because some buildings cannot be renovated with tenants present.

“I’m very mindful of the potential (for) unintended consequences if you say we can’t do no-cause evictions,” he said. “You’ve got these buildings and they’re just in terrible shape.”

The debate puts city officials in a difficult position. The city’s housing stock is among the oldest in the nation and all agree there are aging buildings in need of upgrades. But, at the same time, housing advocates are concerned that low-income tenants will be priced out of the city as apartment buildings are upgraded .

“There has to be a balance there in keeping people where they are and upgrading those units,” said City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, who serves on a special committee looking for ways to ease the housing crunch. “That’s what makes this so hard.”

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Al Wheeler was evicted without cause from his two-bedroom apartment at 52 Wilmot St. in Portland last year.

The Wilmot Street building had just been sold by Steve Fowler to Crandall Toothaker, a well-known Portland landlord who is in the process of renovating that and other buildings on Wilmot Street. As it happens, Fowler also sold 61-69 Grant St. to Le, who is still considering his renovation options.

Wheeler said the new property owner at Wilmot Street gave him a 30-day notice last February to leave the apartment, but allowed him to stay until April 21, when he finally found an apartment and was able to move out.

“I paid my February rent and then I get an eviction notice,” Wheeler said. “I was kind of surprised because I was paying my rent on time.”

The 61-year-old Wheeler said he is a former Marine and used veterans benefits and disability checks to pay $820 a month in rent before he was told he had to move out. After failing to find another affordable place in Portland, Wheeler now rents a one-bedroom apartment for $860 a month in Westbrook. He takes a bus to go to the Veterans Affairs clinic in Portland.

Some tenants who have seen what is happening in the market are worried they could be next.

Cheyenne Donovan said the recent sale of her building has made her nervous. The 29-year-old mother of two young children lives at 125 Grant St., which was recently sold to Port Property Management. The new owner manages more than 900 apartments in Portland and South Portland.

Donovan said she had the protection of a yearly lease for the past four years, but now has only a month-to-month lease for her $1,083-per-month, two-bedroom apartment. She said she pays $683 out-of-pocket for the apartment and the rest is covered by a Section 8 voucher. She said she believes Port Property Management is planning to renovate the building.

“Once they start with the 30-day leases, you know you’re in trouble,” Donovan said. “We’re worried that any day now we will get a 30-day notice and we won’t be able to find a place we can afford. The prices out there are ridiculously high.”

Port Property Management on Friday did not return a call seeking comment about its plans for the building.

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According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, low-income renters are most likely to face housing uncertainty, while women, minorities and single mothers are often disproportionately affected by forced evictions.

It’s unclear exactly how many evictions have occurred in Maine in recent years, either without cause or because of lease violations such as nonpayment of rent. No agency collects that information.

There are data that show how many eviction cases are disputed in court, although the numbers would not reflect no-cause evictions when there is no basis for court challenges.

In the 2015 fiscal year, Maine courtrooms processed 6,177 eviction cases. That’s a nearly 20 percent increase over the 5,167 cases processed in fiscal year 2011. However, eviction cases in Portland District Court have been trending downward. In fiscal year 2015, 896 eviction cases went through the court process, a 17 percent decrease from the 1,048 cases in fiscal 2011.

Court records capture only a portion of the evictions because many tenants simply leave an apartment without going through the court process, according to Katie McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal. Pine Tree Legal saw an increase in the number of cases it was involved in last year – 402 compared to 379 in 2014.

McGovern and others have said there have been more evictions as Portland’s market heated up, and finding new housing has at the same time become more difficult for low- and moderate-income people in recent years.

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The Portland City Council’s Housing Committee plans to formally discuss remedies for the city’s housing crunch this spring.

While the committee will consider ways to change zoning rules and encourage more housing construction, it’s now clear that tenant protections will be front and center.

The Portland Tenants Union has suggested the city institute rent control, which limits the frequency and amount of rent increases, to prevent existing residents from being priced out of their apartments. That recommendation is supported by Pine Tree Legal but opposed by landlords, who argue it will discourage landlords from fixing up their buildings.

However, the idea of having someone at City Hall to mediate minor disputes between landlords and renters is drawing some support from landlords, who see it as one way to avoid going to court.

“I’m sure the courts would love it because they’re overburdened,” said Carleton Winslow, a landlord and member of two landlord associations. “If you can keep those out of the courts, I think everyone would be for the better.”

Meanwhile, at the city’s request, Pine Tree Legal has suggested a menu of options for protecting low-income residents:

Adopt ordinances that prohibit discrimination against tenants using housing vouchers, make it clear that tenants of buildings that have been foreclosed upon continue to have the same rights, and extend protections to tenants living in a boarding house or hotel for an extended period of time.

Increase funding for the city’s Tenant Based Rental Assistance Program, which can help people pay security deposits.

Increase the maximum amounts of General Assistance vouchers for housing so people can continue to live in Portland.

Conduct better housing inspections.

Increase the percentage of affordable units required in some developments from 10 percent to 20 percent.

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In the wake of the Grant Street evictions, councilors publicly brainstormed their own ideas for protecting residents.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who leads the Housing Committee, suggested last week that the city establish some sort of rapid response team to help tenants who are being evicted. She said it could be modeled after the Maine Department of Labor’s team, which tries to help workers who have been laid off in large numbers.

Duson, who did not return a call for comment, also wanted to make sure all rental units are registered with the city as required, especially if they have been sold.

The city is now building such a registry and has 15,254 units registered so far. When an apartment building is sold, the new owner must register with the city within 30 days.

City Councilor Jon Hinck expressed support last week for adopting an ordinance that would require landlords to provide a payment to low-income tenants who are evicted. The payout is intended to help offset the cost of moving, which often includes the need to pay application fees in addition to the normal security deposits and last month’s rent. A similar law exists in Seattle.

Councilor Thibodeau suggested that the city use money from a housing trust fund supported by developers and consider low-interest loans to landlords looking to renovate their buildings, in exchange for some guarantee that the post-renovation rents would be affordable.

Property owners are already warning against overreaction.

Toothaker, the Portland landlord, told the Housing Committee last week that landlords need the ability to evict without cause. When he took over 52 Wilmot St., he said there were holes in the walls, electrical wires dangling from the ceiling, and bedbugs.

“We have got to get our buildings up to code,” he said.

Jody Huntington owns five rental units in two buildings in Portland. She is concerned that the city will emphasize tenant rights over a landlord’s private property rights. “I’d like there to be protections for both sides,” Huntington said.

Since a deadly apartment building fire in Portland in 2014, the city has been studying ways to ensure the safety of its housing units and cracking down on landlords whose buildings are not up to code. Huntington said she is now worried the city will adopt policies that will discourage landlords from making those improvements.

“We can’t have it both ways,” she said. “It is a business proposition and it’s not fair to expect someone to renovate their building and not let them recoup the cost for that.”