Portland Mayor Kate Snyder and city councilors met privately with the city’s attorney Monday for the second time in as many weeks to figure out how to interpret and implement five citizen-initiatives voters approved on Nov. 3.

This time, however, officials had little to say about how they plan to move forward.

The mayor and a majority of the councilors opposed the referendum proposals, but the initiatives were supported by voters during a huge turnout fueled in part by concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and economic insecurity.

After a 90-minute meeting with Corporation Counsel Danielle West Chuhta on Monday, Snyder did not make any announcement regarding the city’s interpretation of the initiatives they discussed, including rent control and a suite of reforms known as “A Green New Deal for Portland.”

A similar session last week ended with Snyder announcing that the council supported West-Chuhta’s opinion that a voter-approved minimum wage ordinance requiring time-and-a-half pay during declared emergencies would take effect in 2022 and not next month as widely believed before the vote.

That interpretation runs contrary to the intent of People First Portland, a political group formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which says the wage provision should take effect 30 days after passage and means the minimum wage in Portland should rise from $12 to $18 an hour during the coronavirus emergency. The hazard pay provision applies only to people who are required to report to Portland workplaces during an emergency, and not to people who work remotely.

Snyder’s announcement about the minimum wage led to some confusion about whether employers could face legal action if they accept the city’s legal interpretation and do not provide the hazard pay during the pandemic.

Snyder emerged from Monday’s private session without any announcements and said the city is planning a more thorough communication strategy about implementing the remaining initiatives, acknowledging the inadequacy of last week’s brief statement.

“We know it’s important to get this work right,” Snyder said. “We know the people of Portland have spoken and the city has five new ordinances to implement.”

People First Portland, meanwhile, said the city has yet to make contact with the authors of the new ordinances about how to move forward.

“We remain concerned that the council continues to meet in private to discuss public referenda,” People First Portland volunteer Kate Sykes said in an email. “Our team is already meeting with other cities around the country that have implemented these policies, but the city has yet to reach out to coordinate, advise or work with us. Winning on election day was just Act I of our organizing campaign to set a new course for Portland, and we are in it for the long haul.”

Ordinances typically take effect 30 days after being enacted, which would be Dec. 5, unless the city offers a different interpretation, as it did with the minimum wage.

Before the election, city officials, business owners and affordable housing advocates, argued the initiatives would have unintended consequences, including job losses, new barriers to housing construction and increased costs to the city and its taxpayers. People First Portland, however, dismissed those predictions.

Two of the ordinances reviewed by the council Monday are complex reforms to protect tenants by enacting rent control, among other things, and a sweeping ordinance called the Green New Deal For Portland, which changes affordable housing requirements, enacts new labor rules (such as requiring many city contractors to have apprenticeship programs) and increases energy efficiency standards.

TENANT PROTECTIONS

An Act to Protect Tenants was approved by 58 percent of voters. It limits annual rent increases to inflation plus any property tax increases, although its provisions do not apply to apartment buildings of four or fewer units if the landlord lives in the building.

For apartments currently registered with the city, the ordinance sets a base rent at whatever a landlord charged as of June 1.

People First Portland has taken to social media to remind tenants that any rent increases that were made after June 1 are illegal. The group has set up an email account to collect complaints until the council establishes a Rent Board to begin enforcing the ordinance.

Landlords may increase rents by up to 5 percent once a year when a unit turns over and new tenants move in. Those who don’t increase their rents in a given year can bank those increases for future years, but no rent increase can exceed 10 percent in any given year. Any rent increase in excess of the cap, including increases to recoup repairs and investments, must be approved by the Rent Board.

The Rent Board will be appointed by the City Council, which must make take “reasonable steps” to appoint no more than three landlords and at least three renters.

The board will mitigate disputes and have the power to fine landlords. It also will decide whether to grant additional rent increases for landlords who make a significant capital investments, such as replacing a boiler or renovating a unit.

Among other reforms, the ordinance also would change at-will tenancies, in which a tenant rents an apartment on a monthly basis and without a lease. It would triple the amount of notice landlords must give a tenant when ending an at-will tenancy, from 30 days to 90 days, although the landlord can pay the tenants $500 per unit to reduce that notice to 60 days or $1,000 to reduce it to 30.

GREEN NEW DEAL

“A Green New Deal for Portland” was approved by nearly 59 percent of voters. Despite its name, it’s unrelated to the similarly named national Green New Deal.

The 15-page ordinance places additional labor, energy efficiency and affordable housing requirements on construction projects that receive $50,000 or more in city funding.

Those contractors would be required to participate in a formal apprenticeship program, pay prevailing wages, meet higher energy efficiency standards, increase the percentage of middle-income housing, and lower the income levels that determine affordability. Also included are new energy efficiency standards and solar-ready roofs.

The ordinance increases the percentage of affordable units – from 10 percent to 25 percent – that must be created as part of developments of 10 or more units, while also reducing the prices that can be charged.

Currently, these so-called workforce units must be affordable to a household earning up to 100 percent of the area median income for rentals and up to 120 percent of AMI for homeownership. Both of those thresholds are reduced to 80 percent AMI, which currently would range from $56,504 for a single-person household to $80,720 for four people.

The new ordinance also increases the amount a developer can pay in lieu of building those units – from $106,000 to $150,000. That payment goes into the city’s housing trust fund, which is used to subsidize affordable housing.

Before the election, the city’s finance director warned that the requirements would add nearly $9 million annually to the city budget and eliminate 90 percent of the local vendors who bid on city projects. People First Portland, however, dismissed those estimates.

Snyder said the council will meet again in executive session next week.


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