An article about Lisbon, Portugal, in the Aug. 17 New York Magazine made me think about Maine in general and Portland in particular. It seems that between one-third and one-half of working class housing in some parts of Lisbon have been converted to hostels, hotels and Airbnbs, driving local people out of the city. Sound like Munjoy Hill to anyone?

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

The interesting thing about this tale of global gentrification is that Lisbon is trying to use the COVID-19 pandemic to correct some of undesirable effects of the plague of short-term rentals. To begin with, Lisbon officials are taking 2,000 homes off the short-term rental market, requiring all new rental contracts to be for at least five years and specifying that renters cannot be charged more than 30% of their monthly income.

Could COVID-19 provide a similar civic corrective for Portland, a happening little city by the sea that is overrun with tourists, hipsters, retirees, in-migrants, foodies, condo dwellers and people from away? Of course, that’s what Vacationland means, a place that exists primarily to serve people who don’t live there.

If nothing else, the pandemic should put a halt to the 100-plus cruise ships a year that pull into Portland discharging thousands of lost souls onto the streets of the Old Port.

And the coronavirus should starve a few of Portland’s excess restaurants and bars to death. Portland has 536 licensed food establishments. That’s one for every 118 people who actually live in the city. Half that would be plenty. And for those who get off on scoring a reservation at the latest trendy bistro, just mail a postcard to the Lost Kitchen in Freedom. You’ll be one of 20,000 supplicants hoping to be one of the 1,100 lucky ones.

You’ve probably asked yourself at one time or another, “Who stays in all the new hotels that have been built all over the Portland peninsula?” Still a mystery to me, but I keep thinking the city might be better off if half those hotels went belly up and were converted to affordable housing.


Big hotel chains got a major bailout when Sen. Susan Collins wrote a loophole into the Paycheck Protection Program allowing them to apply for funds originally intended for small local businesses, but I sure hope Airbnb hosts in Maine, who rented rooms to 542,000 travelers last year, didn’t get a federal handout, too.

The pandemic might be the right occasion to rethink letting every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a spare room operate a bed and breakfast. Bans and restrictions on Airbnbs have become worldwide. Portland currently allows 400 non-owner-occupied short-term rental properties. That number could be zero. If you’re not home, a bunch of strangers shouldn’t be in your house either.

Though it is probably blasphemous to say so in a place so economically dependent on entertaining others, tourists ultimately destroy the very thing they seek. For what is lost when places become too expensive for local folks and thus overpopulated by people from away is authenticity, a sense of belonging. It’s an issue from Portugal to Portland, from the Outer Hebrides to Vinalhaven.

Whether it’s 800 climbers a year summiting Mt. Everest or 35,000 hikers a year filing up Mt. Katahdin, the land has a carrying capacity. The enforced self-quarantining and crowd control of the coronavirus pandemic gives us a chance to think about how best to keep from being overrun by folks from away, at least until the real estate market gets overrun with people fleeing the viral cities to the south.

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