A subcommittee of Portland’s City Council has recommended seven people out of a pool of 27 applicants to serve on a new board that will oversee tenant protections and rent control.

The Rent Board is a central piece of an ordinance enacted in November through a citizen-initiated referendum that was opposed by most city councilors and is now being challenged in court by a group of landlords. The prospective members include three tenants, three landlords and a homeowner.

Portland’s new ordinance limits rent increases to the rate of inflation plus any property tax increases. Landlords who don’t raise the rent can bank those increases for future use, though rent cannot increase more than 10 percent in any given year.

Members of the new Rent Board will hear requests by landlords seeking additional rent increases to recoup costs for maintenance and renovation projects. They also mediate tenant-landlord disputes if both parties file a request in writing.

While the rent board members won’t be officially appointed until later this month, the city has already received five complaints about possible ordinance violations, according to a city spokesperson.

Portland’s new rent control and tenant rights ordinance is the latest response to a shortage of rental housing that began pushing up rents a decade ago and continues to price workers out of the city.

Rents rose nearly 40 percent in the five years ending in 2015, leading to an earlier failed effort to adopt rent control in the city. The housing shortage led to a boom in new construction that mostly included high-end apartments and condominiums. While some subsidized affordable housing also has been built, other existing apartments have been converted to short-term rentals or to condos or high-end apartments. The tight supply and strong demand have continued to push rents our of reach for many.

Formation of the Rent Board comes as landlords have sued the city to block implementation of the ordinance approved by 58 percent of voters, and as some renters are organizing their own tenant unions to ensure landlords are abiding by the ordinance even as they try to overturn it in the courts. An attorney representing the Southern Maine Landlord Association said last week that no hearings have been scheduled in that case.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Councilor Pious Ali, who leads the nominations committee, said the ordinance requires representation from each of the council’s five districts, plus two at-large seats. And the initial appointees will serve staggered terms so there will be a complete turnover every three years.

Ali said the four-member nominations committee conducted interviews at the end of February. The city treats committee nominations as personnel matters, so the interviews and deliberations were conducted in executive session.

“We had a robust discussion before we agreed,” Ali said.

Ali said the board is diverse in terms of gender, but the pool of applicants lacked racial diversity. He plans to work with city officials over the next year to find better ways to recruit residents for all city committees.

“Most of the people who respond to most of our announcements for appointments are people who are already in the political bubble and engaging,” Ali said. “Part of our work plan this year on that committee is to look at what and how can we make this process very accessible to all. I think the city clerk’s office is doing the best it can – we just need to start thinking outside the box.”

According to the city, the nominees are: Peaks Island tenant Christopher “Buddy” Moore for District 1, serving a one-year term; Parkside resident and landlord Michelle Dunham for District 2, serving a one-year term; tenant Elliott Simpson for District 3, serving a three-year term; landlord Ian McCracken for District 4, serving a two-year term; homeowner Austin Sims for District 5, serving a three year-term; and tenant Elias Kann and landlord Barbara Vestal for at-large seats, serving two- and three-year terms, respectively.

Moore, one of the tenants, said in an email that he volunteered after seeing the challenges renters face in Portland and deciding to “act as a voice for folks who feel like they are disadvantaged by the status quo.

“I’ve been inspired to hear that, around Portland, tenants are organizing and speaking out,” Moore said. “I’m looking forward to helping promote a more robust balance of power, and to ensure a more equitable landlord-tenant relationship in this city.”

Dunham, meanwhile, owns and lives in a seven-unit apartment building and wrote in her application letter that her “primary goal is to be a voice for small landlords in the city.” She also is a property manager for a 168-unit building that provides government-funded housing for the elderly and disabled.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the council will vote March 15 on the appointments. Once it’s formed, it will be up to the committee to decide how quickly it can begin meeting, she said.

Once the board begins meeting, the city will have to figure out what to do with its existing Rental Housing Advisory Committee, which was established by the council in 2016 as part of a more modest package of tenant protections. The council delayed appointing members to the group until the fall of 2019.

“We haven’t had that discussion yet,” Snyder said. “It will be a good discussion to have since the rent board starts meeting, so we can see how these two complement each other or overlap with each other and decide whether we need to do anything about that.”

The advisory group’s mission is to provide the city’s housing committee with recommendations and proposals for improvements, modifications or changes regarding landlord and tenant policy, and identifying educational opportunities, seminars and materials that would be useful to landlords and tenants.

Last year, the advisory committee proposed banning application fees and permitting landlords to only charge a security deposit and the last month’s rent before a tenant moves in. The committee viewed application fees, and other charges, as barriers to housing, especially when tenants have to apply for multiple apartments. But the council amended that proposal, capping rental fees to $30 or the actual cost for processing the application and conducting background checks, whichever is lower, and adding other regulations.

The group met with the council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee in January to discussing its future, according to Mary Davis, the city’s housing director.

Davis said the advisory committee is in the process of formulating a work plan for the coming year for the housing committee to consider. However, the committee expressed an interest in letting the new Rent Board begin meeting before any final decisions are made.

Davis said the city is currently advertising for open positions on the Rental Housing Advisory Committee.

“There may be a way for the two groups to work together,” Davis said.


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