SOUTH PORTLAND — We live in an age of anger, of “passionate intensity,” to borrow from William Butler Yeats. We draw sharp lines, dig ourselves in and seem incapable of peeping over the divide. Moral certainty steps up to the plate and we doubt not the righteousness of our position. Complexity – the great gray areas of life – shrinks like plastic wrap under a flame.

Consider the ongoing dust-up over short-term rentals, which, according to a resident recently paraphrased in the Portland Press Herald, “have spread unchecked in South Portland.”

Last month, at one of a series of South Portland City Council workshops on short-term rentals, we learned that such dwellings spread because there had been no complaints. After a year of renting to 10,800 guests, not a peep. Until recently, of course. And what complaints! Truly horrible behavior and, while limited to a handful of properties, unacceptable.

Clearly, regulation is needed.


I am not an investor in short-term property rentals, but at yet another council workshop on the topic, I met many of my neighbors who are. They were teachers trying to make ends meet, fathers trying to pay for their daughters’ education, widows hoping to keep their homes, single mothers supplementing income and retired folks from all walks of life. This was not the Donald Trump model of investment. These were not out-of-state developers razing single-family homes and putting up luxury condos. These were our neighbors, investing locally, often refurbishing houses and streets.


When I moved to Preble Street in 1988, I was often woken up at 3 in the morning. Almost every week, the police came calling at the house across the street, where drunken parties and drug dealers came and went at all hours. I had “queer go home” painted on my front door.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned from our passionate city councilors that, unlike Portland, Cape Elizabeth or Scarborough, South Portland has always been a wonderful community where neighbors reach out to neighbors, shovel their walkways and watch over their kids. All of this, I was informed, is under attack by short-term renters, who are apparently tearing apart the very fabric of our community. “If you need more money, just sell your house and move,” advised one very intense fellow.

And what if a neighborhood investor gets hurt? Well, tough luck. They should have read the zoning code, a councilor scolded. The council was in a firm “either-or” mode, their moral quills unwavering, their ears closed to complexity. Neighborhood investors were simply louts out to destroy “our” community.


Perhaps if I had grown up with Donna Reed down the street, I may have been persuaded. Certainly, my current neighbors are fantastic and I count on them often. Still, amidst all the moral certainty and nostalgia of that night, it was hard to miss the fact that these small-time investors are also my neighbors. They are the neighbors who cleaned up Preble Street. They are the neighbors who helped me clean off my front door. They are the neighbors who help clean up the beach every spring. And they are the neighbors who helped make Willard Beach the kind of neighborhood everyone wants to live in – a place of great restaurants, bakeries, crepe shops and neighborhood soup nights. They are not the enemy. They are also us.

At its best, government is about balancing the interests and needs of its many diverse citizens. There may be a bully in the White House, but communities do not thrive when laws that ignore reality are dictated. Regulation will not bring back a mythical past that some councilors so fondly remember. But it will address the complexities of our time and the positive role that many short-term rental investors have played in them.

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