Portlanders waiting to learn how the city will implement five citizen referendum initiatives approved by voters on Nov. 3 will have to wait a little longer.

City officials announced Tuesday they will release an implementation strategy next week – only days before the new ordinances go into effect.

Meanwhile, People First Portland, the political group formed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, is offering its own advice to city employers, workers and renters and has said it plans to create an interim Rent Board to oversee allegations of housing violations under one of the initiatives that includes rent control.

City officials say those messages are only causing confusion and urged the Portland community to be patient.

The city’s announcement Tuesday comes after councilors spent roughly three hours over the course of three closed-door meetings with their attorney.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the private sessions were needed so the council could receive a full, line-by-line legal review of the ordinances to be implemented by city staff beginning next month. Residents and businesses shouldn’t expect any surprises, she said, because the city is implementing the ordinances as they were written by activists, including People First Portland.

“As I mentioned before, once policy is adopted, either by a vote of the City Council, or, in this case, by citizens at referendum, the work to faithfully implement the language of the ordinances resides with city staff,” Snyder said in a written statement. “Corporation Counsel offers guidance on any and all city ordinances when needed, and the City Manager has the responsibility for implementing and enforcing city ordinances.”

However, People First Portland and some workers expressed outrage two weeks ago when the city announced its interpretation that the hazard pay provision contained in the minimum wage ordinance would not take effect until 2022, rather than in December as activists intended. They accused the mayor and councilors, nearly all of whom  had publicly opposed the referendum questions, of undermining the will of voters.

Snyder said the city is simply applying the ordinances as written. “Unfortunately the writer’s intent didn’t align with the language and that’s really the only place in the five referendums that I can see anything other than plain language being faithfully implemented,” Snyder said in an interview.

Em Burnett, a volunteer with People First Portland, said she understands that city staff has a lot of work to do to understand and implement five citizen ordinances in the coming days. But the group is pressuring the city to quickly implement them.

Burnett said the group has already received 15 to 20 emails from tenants alleging rental violations, including rent increases that may have to be rolled back when the ordinance takes effect. They hope to create more urgency for the city to set up its Rent Board, called for as part of a complex ordinance intended to protect tenants through rent limits and other reforms.

“Right now, we just see such a strong need to catalog these complaints and make sure that people have the right information,” Burnett said. “This might add a little extra pressure on them to set this up in time.”

People First Portland is creating confusion among landlords and tenants, according to city officials and a local landlord association.

“The City of Portland is the only entity authorized to enforce or implement the recently passed citizen initiated ordinances,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in a written statement. “Any interim actions taken by any outside groups do not have governmental authority, and are not sanctioned by the city nor enforceable.

“Staff has worked very hard and quickly to process the voter-approved language in each of the five ordinances and take the necessary steps to ensure implementation can begin by the time they go into effect,” Jennings added. “We understand the public has a lot of questions regarding what these new ordinances mean and how they affect them as residents and businesses, and so we look forward to publishing easy-to-understand guidance and FAQ documents next week.”

With the exception of the minimum wage, all the ordinances will take effect on Dec. 6. There is no deadline for forming a Rent Board, although Snyder said she hopes to solicit applications sometime in December.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, said it has hired its own attorney to evaluate the tenant protections ordinance. He suggested there are areas of the ordinance that may be legally problematic, but he declined to provide additional details.

Vitalius said the activists are not helping landlords by setting up a Rent Board without having legal authority to do so.

“People’s First Portland is misleading people about their authority by stating that they are creating an interim rent board,” he said. “PFP has no ability to enforce or interpret what is now a city ordinance. PFP is just another group, like the SMLA, that has the same legal authority as a book club. The SMLA has hired legal counsel to assist landlords in understanding the confusing and potentially illegal aspects of what has passed.”

Developers are also awaiting city guidance about the “Green New Deal for Portland,” a wide-ranging reform package that includes new zoning, labor and energy efficiency requirements.

Gary Vogel, who serves on the board and executive committee of the Maine Real Estate and Development Association, said city staff has told members that any applicant that has submitted a complete application for a project or permit would not be subject to the new requirements. That guidance has created enough certainty for projects currently in the pipeline to continue moving forward, he said.

Developers behind other projects, including those with active purchase-and-sale agreements, are eagerly awaiting guidance. One area in particular, he said, was a reference to a set of state building codes, called stretch codes, that are not yet finished.

Vogel said that developers who have yet to submit development plans continue to be concerned that the new rules will make their project unviable, especially affordable housing projects that rely on state subsidies. Those subsidies come with cost caps on projects and the Green New Deal may push Portland projects out of the competition, he said.

“We’re very concerned that after the projects that are currently approved or have applied for their approvals, it may be very, very difficult to get more affordable housing projects built in Portland because the nature of all of the (new city) requirements may make it so those projects can’t compete for tax credits,” he said.

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