Portland Mayor-elect Ethan Strimling has created a new committee of city councilors and given it the task of trying to reverse a rental housing shortage that is pricing residents out of their homes and, in some cases, out of the city.

The new panel is part of a broader restructuring of the City Council’s committees, which examine and recommend policies related to social services, economic development, environmental sustainability and public safety.

Unlike other committees, which will have three members, the new Housing Committee will have a majority of the nine-member council, which will better position it to pass policy through the full council. Its top priority is to “reverse Portland’s housing crisis,” Strimling said.

“That’s a very powerful place for this committee to be,” Strimling said Monday. “I want the committee to be zeroing in on the housing crisis and make sure we’re not squeezing out the middle class.”

Restructuring of the committees is the first indication of the direction that Strimling is looking to take the council during the first year of his four-year term. He will formally take office next Monday.

Housing and cost-of-living issues were a focal point of the mayoral campaign. Two citywide referendums on the municipal ballot also were tied to housing development and a lack of affordability in Maine’s largest city.

The impacts of Portland’s hyper-competitive rental housing market also was the focus of a special reporting project by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, which published a six-part series from Nov. 15-20 based on the perspectives of renters, landlords and others, and on demographic data showing dramatic changes in the city’s rental neighborhoods. The series found that rents are rising rapidly and renter incomes are falling, and illustrated how middle-income families and service workers were being priced out of the city even as it is seeing a surge in construction of luxury housing.

Strimling said he will work closely with Housing Committee Chairwoman Jill Duson to address the housing shortage. He noted that the committee includes both incoming on-peninsula councilors – Belinda Ray of East Bayside and Spencer Thibodeau of Oakdale – as well as at-large Councilor Nicholas Mavodones and District 5 Councilor David Brenerman.

“The committee should be as broad as it possibly can be in its thinking, both in the short term and long term,” Strimling said.

Duson didn’t return a call for comment. Thibodeau, who represents the West End, said it’s good that so many people want to relocate to Portland, but the committee needs to make sure the city is doing everything it can to ensure everybody has a place to live.

“I think it certainly shows a commitment about doing something about housing in the city,” Thibodeau said. “We just don’t have enough housing. I think the city is going to continue to grow over the next three to five years and we need to get out in front of it.”

Strimling didn’t identify any initial steps to address the growing affordability gap, but during the campaign set a goal of permitting 2,000 more housing units over the next five years.

The city already has begun tackling the housing issue. A new ordinance adopted under outgoing Mayor Michael Brennan requires developers of new housing to include some units that are affordable for middle-income renters, and the city is working to identify public properties that might be used for new housing, among other things. It also relaxed zoning rules on the peninsula to encourage more housing.

Committee structures and appointments are among the few powers granted to Portland’s mayor, since the day-to-day administration of the city is handled by the city manager.

Brennan, who lost his re-election bid in November, also reorganized committees shortly after being elected in 2011. He reduced the number of committees from nine to six as a way to improve efficiency.

On Monday, Strimling announced plans to create six council committees focusing on housing, economic development, health and human services, finance, energy and sustainability, and statewide legislation. He said the focus of each committee and its 2016 work plans will be finalized in the coming weeks as part of the council’s collective planning efforts.

With the exception of the Housing Committee, all of the committees will have three members, as opposed to the four-member committees under Brennan.

Public safety issues will be funneled through the Health and Human Services Committee, unless they are related to housing.

Strimling wants the Health and Human Services Committee, which would be chaired by Edward Suslovic, to focus on whether the city’s social services programs are effective in moving individuals and families out of poverty and into a more productive life.

“I’ve asked (Suslovic) to take a good serious look at this area,” Strimling said. “My recommendation is that we really focus on the health and human services side and moving people out of poverty. From a budgetary perspective, it’s a very big piece of what we do, so we have to get our arms around it.”

At $31.7 million, health and human services accounts for nearly 18 percent of the city’s total expenses this fiscal year.

Here are the other committee assignments:

• Economic Development: Brenerman (chairman), Justin Costa and Thibodeau.

• Energy and Sustainability: Jon Hinck (chairman), Suslovic and Thibodeau.

• Finance: Mavodones (chair), Suslovic and Ray.

• Health and Human Services: Suslovic (chair), Brenerman and Ray.

• Legislative/Nominating: Costa (chair), Duson and Hinck.

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