Mayor Ethan Strimling proposed a new city ordinance Wednesday that would place restrictions on rent increases and no-cause evictions, establish automatic one-year leases and require landlords to rent to people who rely on housing vouchers.

The proposal would not limit the amount rents could increase, but it would add restrictions on the frequency and circumstances under which a landlord could increase rents.

The ordinance, designed to increase housing security for low- and middle-income renters in Portland, was presented to the City Council’s Housing Committee, which is expected to take formal action on several proposals beginning Sept. 14. The committee also heard proposals from other councilors, including one that would require landlords to help pay relocation expenses of tenants whose leases aren’t renewed under certain circumstances.

“The seeds of these issues have been in front of this committee for a long time,” Strimling said in an interview before the meeting. The mayor created the five-member committee shortly after taking office in December. “What I’m trying to do is provide a path to help resolve those issues.”

Many provisions in the Portland Rental Housing Security Ordinance will likely rankle local landlords. And some proposals appear to run counter to advice from city lawyers, who warned that efforts to establish rent control and restrict mass evictions would set the city on a “very costly and time-consuming” path.

City Attorney Danielle West-Chuhta told the Housing Committee she hadn’t reviewed Strimling’s ordinance. Based on the mayor’s presentation, however, she was concerned that some of the proposals would run afoul of state laws concerning tenancy-at-will and establish a process for dealing with housing discrimination complaints that is different from the process outlined in the Human Rights Act.

She also questioned the legality of a provision that would allow tenants to seek fines and damages for violations of the ordinance, ranging from as much as $3,000 plus actual damages to a $500 fine or one month’s rent for violation of the lease/eviction/rent increase provisions.

Local landlords have already provided the mayor with their own legal opinion, which echoes the city’s legal advice, about some of his proposals, according to Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.

“The mayor’s proposals are pretty far out there,” Vitalius said in an interview. “The mayor is painting with a very broad brush and trying to make some dramatic changes to the landlord-tenant relationship.”

Members of the public speak at a meeting Wednesday of the City Council's Housing Committee, which heard proposals from Portland's mayor and two councilors. The panel is expected to take formal action beginning Sept. 14.

Members of the public speak at a meeting Wednesday of the City Council’s Housing Committee. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

PROPELLED BY THE COST OF HOUSING

Despite the legal concerns, Strimling’s proposal was cheered by tenant advocates who spoke during the meeting.

“I think there are a lot of good points that I think would improve the situation overall if it was implemented,” said Jim Devine, an advocate at Preble Street’s Homeless Voices for Justice. “I think now is the time for action. The people who have been evicted are suffering today.”

The cost of housing in Portland has been a hot topic in recent years. A Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis last year showed that average rents had increased by 40 percent over a five-year period, while renter incomes had dropped. That was making it difficult for many low- and middle-income residents to remain in the city.

A strong demand for housing has encouraged the development of new luxury apartment and condominium buildings. It has also prompted some investors to buy older buildings, so they can be improved and command higher rents. In the process, many low-income and disabled people are being forced to leave and have few options for remaining in the city.

Strimling’s ordinance would:

 Require yearly leases as a default, unless the landlord and tenant expressly agree to different terms, such as monthly leases. In the absence of those agreements, the yearlong lease would be automatically renewed annually, unless the landlord or tenant provides 90 days notice of their intent not to renew.

 Require landlords to accept residents who receive subsidized housing vouchers. Landlords have long been told that they cannot discriminate against those receiving housing assistance, but a recent court ruling upheld a landlord’s right not to participate in the federal Section 8 program.

 Prohibit landlords who own buildings that do not comply with current codes from increasing rents. Strimling said landlords who own multiple buildings would not be able to increase rents at any of their properties if even one of their units is out of compliance with state and local habitability laws.

 Prohibit landlords from increasing rents in the first year of tenancy, or more than once in any given year. It would also double the noticing requirement for rent increases from 45 days to 90 days.

 Establish clear guidelines for, and limit the use of, no-cause evictions, which currently can occur with only 30 days notice for tenants who do not have a lease. Annual no-cause evictions would be limited to 40 percent of the tenants in a five- to 10-unit building; 33 percent in an 11- to 15-unit building; 30 percent in a 16- to 21-unit building and 25 percent in a building with 21 or more units.

Strimling’s proposal also calls for a rental housing ombudsman in City Hall – a proposal that has been championed by tenants and landlords alike. That individual would only explain existing laws, rules and rights. He or she would not mediate disputes or enforce rules.

A PAIR OF SUPPLEMENTAL PROPOSALS

Strimling conceded that his proposals could face legal challenges.

“It’s worth fighting for,” he said.

The committee also heard proposals from Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, a committee member, and Councilor Jon Hinck, who is not.

Thibodeau’s Leeway Program would extend notification for a no-cause eviction for at-will tenants from 30 days to 90 days. However, the landlord could reduce that notification to the 30-day state minimum by providing a yet-to-be-determined payment to the resident.

Hinck has suggested a Tenant Relocation Assistance ordinance similar to one in Seattle, which would provide funding to help pay some of the expenses of low-income residents who are displaced as a result of renovations, change of use or demolition.

Although the details of Hinck’s proposal still need to be worked out, Seattle’s ordinance provides about $3,500 in assistance to people who earn less than 50 percent of the area’s median income. That payment is split between the landlord and the city.