A new citizens group is organizing to demand a referendum in Portland to curb rising rents and mass evictions in Maine’s largest city.

The rent control effort, or “rent stabilization” as the group calls it, is being pursued by a new group of Portlanders called Resurgam, which was formed after the last presidential election as a way to become engaged in the local community, said member Bre Chamberlain.

They’re calling the campaign Fair Rent Portland and hope to limit annual rent increases in larger buildings and ban no-cause evictions, among other things.

“We need to make sure the workforce that helps make Portland so wonderful and desirable are actually able to live in the city they work in,” Chamberlain said.

Portland is experiencing a boom in construction of high-end and market-rate housing that is often unaffordable to students, artists and people who work in the city’s large service industry. Meanwhile, high demand for housing has pushed up rents for some existing apartments, with some landlords using no-cause evictions to empty units so they can be improved and fetch higher rents.

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis showed that rents in Portland increased 40 percent from 2010 to 2015. The rapid increase, most dramatic in the Munjoy Hill area, happened at the same time incomes were declining for the average renter in Portland.

However, hundreds of new housing units have been built or are under construction since the surge in rent prices, and the impact of that new supply on the market is not yet fully known.

Local landlords such as Tom Watson say rents have plateaued, and that the proposed referendum would backfire and worsen the housing situation because developers would stop investing. Watson is a property manager at Port Property Management, which owns or manages 1,300 units, mostly in Portland.

“This will effectively aggravate what they have identified as a problem,” Watson said. “This will end any and all development in Portland.”

Chamberlain said she and her family were “priced out” of Portland.

In 2013, her landlord on Munjoy Hill kept talking about raising the rent by as much as $1,000, so she and her family moved to Yarmouth to give her daughter stability as she entered school. She believes the proposed ordinance will provide stability to renters, including families, immigrants and the elderly.

“It just felt really scary. I had a newborn and 3-year-old child,” the 37-year-old said. “There was a constant threat and feeling (that) our home was going to be taken from us because they could make more money from someone else. It just wasn’t a healthy way to live.”

The Fair Rent Portland campaign is scheduled to formally kick off on May 28. Chamberlain said the proposed ordinance would prohibit landlords from increasing rents on existing tenants by an amount that exceeds inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for the Greater Portland region. The group says that over the past five years, the CPI has increased between one-half percent and 2.5 percent a year.

But Watson said the proposal ignores the true costs that drive rents: interest rates, utilities, property taxes, fees assessed by the city, pay for property managers, and investments into the property.

The proposal would not cap rent increases when an apartment changes tenants, Chamberlain said. It also would establish a panel of renters and landlords to address any issues that may arise, including waiver requests from landlords who need to increase rents by more than the inflation rate to pay for improvements to the property.

Chamberlain said the ordinance, which is modeled after one in West Hollywood, California, would allow tenants to automatically renew their lease and would eliminate so-called no-cause evictions, which occur when a tenant does not have a lease or rents on a monthly basis. Currently, landlords can choose not to allow a tenant to renew a lease, so the apartment can be advertised to others. Landowners would still be able to evict tenants for cause, such as non-payment or violations of a lease.

Owner-occupied duplexes and triplexes would be exempt from the rules, she said.

“Mostly it’s the big buildings we’re concerned about – at least for now,” Chamberlain said. “We want it to be something that feels digestible for the first referendum.”

Similar proposals have been turned down in recent years.

After advocates last year called on the city to adopt tenant protections, including rent control, the City Council’s Housing Committee dismissed the idea of rent control and a ban against no-cause evictions. Danielle West-Chuhta, the city’s top attorney, warned councilors about potential legal challenges. She suggested that any efforts to change the landlord-tenant relationship regarding evictions would be better dealt with through state legislation.

West-Chuhta, however, acknowledged that rent control is possible, because the state Legislature adopted a law in 1973 specifically allowing municipalities to adopt rent control through a state-run process. In 1995, the law was amended to make it a local decision, she said.

Mayor Ethan Strimling proposed a form of rent control, among other tenant protections. But instead of going down that path, the Housing Committee adopted a more modest set of tenant protections. They included increasing the notice period for rent increases from 45 days to 75 days and requiring landlords and tenants to sign a document describing at-will tenancies.

City Councilor Jill Duson, who leads the Housing Committee, declined to comment on the referendum effort, saying she was not familiar with the details of the proposal and how it differed from those already considered by the committee.

Portland had a vigorous debate about rent control in 2001 and 2002. Like today, vacancy rates were less than 1 percent, driving up rents and displacing low-income tenants. But the council turned down a proposal to freeze rent increases over a five-year period.

The referendum effort set to launch this month could play into the fall City Council elections, in which Joey Brunelle hopes to unseat Duson, a veteran councilor who holds a seat elected by the city at-large. Brunelle has been sharply critical of the tenant protections enacted by the council and said he is “absolutely” in support of the Fair Rent Portland effort.

“We need to do something, and this is a big something and I think it would be a big help,” Brunelle said.

Correction: This story was updated at 1:23 p.m. on July 25, 2017 to correct the distance residents could live from a site in order to sign a document opposing the zone change.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

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