A political action committee formed to oppose three referendum questions on Portland ballot said the proposals are a “cluster bomb of ideas” that threaten all forms of housing production in the city, including much needed affordable housing.

Building a Better Portland launched its campaign Friday against three of the six referendum questions on the city’s Nov. 3 ballot. The group opposes Question C: An Act to Implement a Green New Deal for Portland, Question D: An Act to Protect Tenants and Question E: An Act to Restrict Short Term Rentals in Portland.

The PAC’s president, Ethan Boxer-Macomber, a Portland resident who has experience as a city planner and nonprofit housing developer, said he supports efforts to combat climate change and build affordable housing. However, the “cluster bomb of ideas” contained in the proposals from People First Portland, a campaign of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, is not the answer, he said.

“I am very much not in support of them because they very much will achieve the opposite of what they purport to try to achieve,” Boxer-Macomber said. He criticized the referendum effort for circumventing the more transparent policy-making process of the City Council, which includes input from experts in the field. 

Boxer-Macomber’s harshest comments were aimed at the Green New Deal for Portland, which he described as “greenwashing.” He said the added costs associated with the ordinance will make it impossible for housing developers to compete for the tax credits needed to build affordable housing, since the scoring criteria prioritize projects that cost less. And it could freeze most types of housing development, except for luxury housing development.

“You go deeper into this ordinance and find it’s really not about anything green,” he said. “It’s a slew of labor laws and restrictive zoning changes that would put up barriers and stumbling blocks and tripwires for those of us who are there trying hard to build affordable housing.”

Kate Sykes, former co-chair of the Maine DSA and spokesperson for the Green New Deal, pushed back against the “greenwashing” accusation, arguing that the ordinance would in fact reduce carbon emissions from buildings and building construction, which account for 40 percent of all emissions. And she said the solar-ready requirement will better position the city to move way from fossil fuels.

“Addressing the climate crisis will require wealthy developers and property owners to make sacrifices,” Sykes said. “Question C simply demands that it’s the CEO’s who are told to tighten their belts, not the workers.”

Those also speaking on behalf of the PAC and against the ordinances were political consultant and PAC treasurer David Farmer, nonprofit affordable housing developer Cullen Ryan of the Community Housing of Maine, Southern Maine Landlord Association President Brit Vitalius and Maine Real Estate and Development Association Vice President Shannon Richards.

A Green New Deal for Portland affects at least three separate areas of policy: It amends the city’s Green Building Code to make it applicable to projects that receive $50,000 in city funding rather than $200,000, requires electrical systems and portions of roofs to be solar-ready, and adopts a code for energy efficiency that is still being developed by the state, among other things.

It also increases the percentage of work-force housing that must be included in developments of 10 or more units from 10 percent to 25 percent, while also lowering the maximum rents and sales prices; and it requires construction projects with city funding to pay prevailing wages and participate in a formal apprenticeship program. The council, which adopted inclusionary zoning in 2015, has considered and rejected proposals to increase requirements for work-force housing and for an apprenticeship program.

The tenant protections ordinance is similar to a rent control proposal soundly rejected by voters three years ago. It would limit rent increases to the cost of inflation and establish a rent board empowered to issue fines for ordinance violations and decide whether landlords can increase rent above inflation (up to 10 percent) to cover capital improvements. It also requires landlords to give at-will tenants, who do not have leases, 90 days notice to leave an apartment, as opposed to 30 days now, though a landlord could reduce that period to 60 days by providing a $500 payment to tenants and to 30 days by providing $1,000.

The short-term rental referendum would eliminate all non-owner occupied rentals, which are currently capped at 400 units on the mainland. It would also take away a tenant’s ability to have a short-term rental with a landlord’s permission. For the remaining owner-occupied rentals, the registration fee would increase a $1,000 a unit, whereas the current fee scale begins at $100 for the first unit.

The PAC also previewed three 30-second video ads that Farmer said would be run on social media sites, TV streaming services and news sites.


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