Keith Costello believes the rental market in Portland, where demand is high and vacancy low, gives landlords too much leverage over tenants.

He lives in the Rosemont neighborhood and there are problems at his apartment, but he doesn’t dare complain, he told the City Council’s Housing Committee on Wednesday.

“If we complained, I’m worried I’m not going to have a place to live,” Costello said. “They say you don’t have to live here, but the fact is, you don’t really have a choice because there’s nowhere else to go.”

Costello has been in this predicament before.

He moved from Philadelphia to Westbrook 10 years ago, initially renting a small apartment from an absentee landlord who demanded the rent on time and offered little in return, he said. He later started a commercial cleaning business and moved to a two-bedroom cape in Portland’s Stroudwater neighborhood.

After three years, the landlord informed him that he wouldn’t be allowed to renew his lease and he had 30 days to move out, he said.

Costello was one of about a dozen renters who addressed the housing committee, which was formed to find solutions to the city’s housing crunch, which is driving up rents and making the city unaffordable to middle- and low-income residents.

Speakers said they were concerned about the application and screening fees imposed by landlords, how having prior evictions can make housing difficult to get, a lack of spaces where artists can both live and work, and support for elderly tenants.

The city has taken some steps. Large development projects now must include affordable units, zoning changes have been made to encourage more density and the city is examining ways to bolster funding for affordable housing projects.

Keith Costello, who lives in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood, told the Housing Committee that he doesn’t dare to complain about problems at his apartment because he’s afraid that he’ll find himself without a place to live.

Keith Costello, who lives in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood, told the Housing Committee that he doesn’t dare to complain about problems at his apartment because he’s afraid that he’ll find himself without a place to live.

But speakers at Wednesday’s hearing said more is needed. The city should consider rent control, hiring an ombudsman to mediate landlord-tenant disputes, banning no-cause evictions, and adopting an ordinance to prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to people who get housing assistance.

Kate McGovern, an attorney for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which gives free legal advice to low-income residents, said the nonprofit agency handled 7,550 cases last year. That caseload included 3,868 landlord-tenant disputes, including nearly 1,400 in Portland.

McGovern said that increasing rents, declining wages, an influx of high-end housing and a decrease in the number of landlords taking Section 8 tenants is creating hardships for many low-income renters.

“Eviction court is the place where these forces collide,” said McGovern, noting that the agency handled 1,200 eviction cases in Portland. “Every two weeks, that courtroom is filled with people who are nine days away from being homeless.”

Several speakers asked the committee to look at ways to allow elderly residents to stay in their homes.

Larry Gross, executive director of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging, noted that more baby boomers are moving to the Portland area. And a recent study by the John T. Gorman Foundation and the University of New Hampshire found that Portland-South Portland-Westbrook area had the highest percentage of low-income seniors in the state.

“We should be thinking in a broader context about how do we create a community that supports aging in place,” Gross said.

Len Freeman, 75, said the city should try to create a network of volunteers to help seniors with household tasks so they can remain in their homes. Finding ways to keep seniors in their houses could stabilize neighborhoods.

So-called village models are being explored in the East End, West End and Back Cove neighborhoods and should be looked at citywide, he said.

“Sometimes they just need a little assistance to remain comfortable and safely in their homes,” Freeman said. “I love my home, my neighbors and my neighborhood. I don’t want to move just because I’m growing older.”

 


Comments are not available on this story.