With the help of counselors, Margaret Peters scrambled to find an apartment – any apartment – in Portland’s red-hot housing market last year after being kicked out of her apartment on Grant Street so the property owner could do renovations.

Now she’s facing eviction again, this time because her landlord hasn’t addressed city concerns about police calls and complaints.

And despite a housing construction boom in Portland, the 55-year-old knows that finding a decent apartment she can afford and a landlord willing to accept someone with a housing voucher is going to continue to be difficult.

“They’re pretty nasty places you go in to look at,” Peters said. “It’s disgusting.”

Most of the hundreds of new apartments and condominiums being built in Portland have been geared toward the upper end of the housing market. Developers and city officials have both predicted that the new luxury units would eventually benefit low-income tenants, because existing Portland residents would be looking to upgrade their living conditions, thereby opening up units at the lower end.

But it may not be happening as people had hoped, in part because many of the new units are going to people moving in from away.

Jonathan Culley of Redfern Properties, which recently completed two apartment buildings, said he does not keep detailed records of where his tenants came from, but estimated that it was “an even mix” of people already in Portland and people from other places.

Tom Watson, a property manager at Port Property Management, which owns or manages about 1,300 units, mostly in Portland, reported similar results. From June to August of last year, about half of the 115 units rented went to people from out of state, while most of the remaining rentals went to Portland residents. In the last three months, out-of-state renters slipped to 43 percent, he said.

Watson noted that rents have not increased over the last year. “I would describe this as neither a tenant’s market nor a landlord’s market, but one in which we’ve hit equilibrium,” he said.

Meanwhile, Brit Vitalius, a Realtor and president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said he is renting fewer of his units to single people with higher incomes. “It’s feeling a little more blue collar,” he said.

While new inventory has made it easier to find high-end apartments, the market remains challenging for low-income people.

In weak rental markets, landlords often turn to people using housing vouchers, since they are a steady source of income. But when demand strengthens, they look to the free market because they can get higher rents.

Peters, whose only income is $735 in monthly disability payments through Social Security, said she has lived in Portland for more than 30 years and has struggled with homelessness over the years, including a two-year stay in a homeless shelter. She currently has a Shelter Care Plus housing voucher through the Shalom House, a local nonprofit that works with people who have mental illness.

Peters’ life was upended shortly before Christmas in 2015 after she was informed that her apartment building at 61-69 Grant St. had been sold and the new owner was kicking out all of the residents so the units could be renovated and rented for more money.

Tenants in three separate buildings, totaling 24 units, were given two months to find new homes, but as the March 1 deadline to leave approached, 14 tenants – all of whom were low-income or had mental health issues or both – still had nowhere else to go. Under pressure from Mayor Ethan Strimling, the new owner agreed to give the tenants more time.

With the help of housing counselors, Peters scoured the city for a decent apartment and a landlord willing to accept a housing voucher. She said the only place she could find was a room for rent on the third floor of 31 East Oxford St., a three-unit apartment building that is well-known to city inspectors as having poor living conditions and excess trash accumulating outside. She began living there last June.

Shalom House Housing Director Norman Maze did not return requests for comment.

Over the last year, police have regularly visited the building, prompting the city to designate it as a disorderly house. City officials say the landlord, Clark Stephens, has not taken the necessary measures to address problems at the building, so they condemned it last month.

Several residents, including Peters, being represented by Pine Tree Legal Assistance, are fighting the evictions so they can have enough time to find a new apartment.

“I think it’s really hard for low-income people in Portland right now,” said attorney Katie McGovern, who is representing Peters and two other residents. “The lack of quality housing for low-income people is a crisis and it’s not getting better.”

Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority, said staff had been trying to help a tenant using a housing voucher from the agency to move out of East Oxford Street for several months. It was only within the last few weeks that they were able to secure a new apartment in Portland, so the tenant could leave, he said.

“It’s not easy to find places,” Adelson said. “It’s been difficult to find new housing for the last three years.”

Strimling formed a special council committee to address the city’s housing shortage shortly after being elected in 2015. However, the committee turned down measures that would protect low-income tenants from being kicked out of their apartments without having the time or resources to find a new place.

Instead, the committee extended the amount of time landlord must provide notice of rent increases from the state-mandated 45 days to 75 days. The city also requires landlords to provide tenants with pamphlets outlining their rights and responsibilities, as well as information explaining at-will tenancies.

A group called Fair Rent Portland is collecting signatures for a possible November referendum on a rent stabilization ordinance.

That proposal would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for the Greater Portland region. The proposal would allow tenants to automatically renew their lease and would eliminate so-called no-cause evictions of tenants, such as the mass eviction that put Peters out of her apartment last year.

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

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

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