SOUTH PORTLAND — State Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, hopes to provide relief to renters by proposing a bill that would require advanced warning of rent increases and more time to comply with eviction notices.

LD 308 would increae the notice period to terminate a “tenancy at will” – which is occupancy by a tenant without a lease or written agreement – from 30 days to 60.

Notice for rent increases would also be extended from 45 to 75 days under the proposal. This, Kessler said, is “widely supported,” noting that South Portland and other nearby municipalities have already enacted such ordinances. 

Doubling the advance time for terminating a tenancy at will, he continued, is what’s “contentious.”

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said the proposal shows “ignorance” of the fact that landlords’ “primary responsibility is to protect tenants from other tenants,” and could allow people to stay longer when situations require immediate action. 

Under state law, landlords must give tenants either a 30-day or seven-day written notice to leave, or both can be combined into one notice. Any “notice to quit” must also advise tenants of their right to contest the eviction in court.

About three years ago, Kessler founded the South Portland Tenants Association and advocated for the city’s first housing security ordinance as a member of the ad hoc Affordable Housing Committee.

However, before the council enacted the 75-day written notice of any rent increase in 2017, Kessler resigned from the panel, citing frustration with the makeup of the committee and the legal advice it received. 

But for Kessler, renters’ rights and housing security hit even closer to home than that. 

“This whole topic was born out of my own experience as a renter when I was given a notice to quit for no fault of my own or my family’s, and 30 days was just not enough time to find a place to live in this housing market,” he said Feb. 14. “We didn’t find a place for 60 days.”

Kessler said he is sympathetic to those being “forced to leave for no fault of their own,” who, for example, might not be able to afford rent increases or whose landlords want to convert their units into short-term rentals. 

Further, in these situations, tenants are often at a disadvantage, Kessler added, and aren’t necessarily able to navigate the legal system and advocate for themselves.

“It’s a major disruption to their lives,” he said. “I feel strongly that giving them the courtesy of 60 days is just the right thing to do. … I’m advocating for those that can’t advocate for themselves.”

But Kessler acknowledged that not everyone agrees, especially landlords. 

What makes it so, he suggested, is landlords’ experiences with renters who stop paying rent or damage property after receiving a notice to quit. 

He added that in many cases when evictions are challenged, they often go to lengthy meditations and hearings that result in rulings in favor of the tenant, with extended payment deadlines. 

The judicial process for landlord-tenant disputes is another issue, Kessler said, that needs to be addressed separately. 

Vitalius said more extreme cases of eviction might involve someone who is dealing drugs or harassing a neighbor.

“In these cases,” he said, “60 days becomes a very long time.”

Kessler said his bill would not eliminate or change the seven-day notice periods landlords are allowed in severe circumstances, such as when tenants heavily damage a unit, are a “nuisance” to neighbors, or are seven days or more behind in rent. 

“Landlords have the right for a seven-day notice in those circumstances. … Not every landlord knows that,” Kessler said. “So there’s also an education component that needs to be addressed.”

Vitalius countered that many tenant disturbance issues are difficult to prove in court, which is required for a seven-day notice. When that is the case, a 30-day period addresses issues that don’t rise to seven-day evictions.

“That’s why landlords care about this,” he said.

Additionally, Vitalius noted the law would only cover a “narrow slice” of rental situations by applying only to tenancies at will. 

According to the House Democratic Office, Kessler’s bill will have a public hearing before the Labor and Housing Committee in the coming weeks. An exact date, Kessler said, hasn’t been set. 

Once the committee sees the bill, Kessler said he already has an amendment to propose that would stipulate that tenants don’t need to give as long as 60 days notice if they decide to leave.

“The bill was drafted for tenants to give 60 days, but that sometimes is not possible, like if you have a job offer in another state,” Kessler said. “Once it reaches committee, it becomes the committee’s bill, so I will be advocating for them to make exceptions for special circumstances or just allow 30 days for tenants.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, has proposed a bill that would require landlords to give 60 days’ notice for termination of tenancies at will, rather than 30, and 75 day’s notice of rent increases, rather than 45.