Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is facing eviction from his Congress Street apartment as the building’s landlord goes before the city’s rent board over complaints from tenants about unfair rent hikes.

Strimling, who advocated for more tenant protection during his time as mayor, says the eviction is in retaliation for his role in organizing a tenants union at the Trelawny Building to address concerns that landlord Geoffrey Rice’s rent increases violated a new city ordinance. The complaints that the Trelawny Tenants Union filed with the city will be discussed by the rent board on Wednesday night.

Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling

Strimling and his attorney, Scott Dolan, allege that Rice started eviction proceedings against Strimling after the union was formed and it started filing complaints against Rice. Under Maine law, a landlord cannot evict a tenant “in retaliation for the tenant’s membership in an organization concerned with landlord-tenant relationships.”

“This is a clear case of retaliation in an attempt to break the Trelawny Tenants Union. Thanks to TTU, Mr. Rice has been forced to retract and refund illegal rent increases, fix fire hazards, release public documents and inform tenants of their rights under the law,” Strimling said in a statement. “We will take this as far as need be to protect the rights of all tenants to organize and fight for better living conditions.”

According to court records, Strimling was first notified last May that his month-to-month lease would not be continued. He was served on Aug. 31 with a 90-day written notice of termination and notice to quit terminating his lease when it expired on Dec. 1. Strimling refused to leave the building after Dec. 1, according to a complaint filed in Maine District Court by the owner of the building, Trelawny 657 LLC.

In a response to that complaint, Strimling said the building owner is engaging in a retaliatory eviction in violation of the First Amendment and the Maine Constitution because Strimling is a founding member and leader of the Trelawny Tenants Union and complained to city officials about rent increases that violated the rent control ordinance.

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A TENANT FOR SIX YEARS

Strimling has rented an apartment in the Trelawny Building for nearly six years. After he received the notices from his landlord, he continued to pay his monthly rent, but the December rent check was returned with a notice from the landlord’s attorney saying it was rejected, Dolan said.

Dolan said his review of court documents shows that Rice has given 12 tenants notices to quit or evict in the past two years. Some were for nonpayment of rent or for lease violations, but Strimling appears to be the only tenant to have a no-cause eviction move forward, he said.

“When this case goes to trial, we expect the judge will find that Mr. Rice is trying to evict Mr. Strimling in unlawful retaliation for his involvement in the Trelawny Tenants Union and for filing complaints to the city. That is, Mr. Rice is trying to break the Trelawny Tenants Union and intimidate its members by attempting to evict former Mayor Ethan Strimling,” Dolan said in a statement.

A final hearing, which will include opening statements, witness testimony and closing arguments, is scheduled for Feb. 10 in Portland District Court.

David Chamberlain, an attorney representing Trelawny 657 LLC in the case, said he could not comment on pending litigation and he had no knowledge of the complaints that will be heard by the rent board on Wednesday. Rice did not respond to a phone message or email.

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Landlords can evict at-will tenants for no reason, but tenants can fight eviction by arguing that their evictions are in retaliation for organizing with other residents or complaining about conditions in the unit, said Katie McGovern, managing attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal aid to low-income people. McGovern advises tenants to keep clear records of their communications, such as requests for repairs, with their landlords.

“I think there has been more tenant organizing activity in the last few years in Portland, particularly in the wake of the rental ordinance, for the same reasons that are raised in the Trelawny Building,” she said. “Tenants are joining forces in order to address potential illegal rent increases.”

McGovern said most eviction proceedings result in a settlement agreement between landlord and tenant. That’s because the tenant can be forced from the apartment just nine days after losing at trial.

“The stakes are really high, particularly in this challenging housing market and particularly for lower-income people,” McGovern said.

ORDINANCE PASSED IN 2020

Strimling, who was mayor from 2015 to 2019, backed the rent control ordinance passed by referendum in 2020. The ordinance limited rent increases based on factors that include the rate of inflation and tax rate increases, increased the amount of notice a landlord must provide when not renewing an at-will tenancy, and created a rent board to enforce the ordinance and award additional rent increases when appropriate.

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The ordinance was upheld by a Superior Court justice after a challenge by local landlords who sued the city and argued that it was vague, conflicted with state and federal statutes, and was an improper use of the citizen initiative process.

The city’s Housing Safety Office has received rent control complaints regarding 20 buildings to date, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said. In each case where there was a violation, the city achieved compliance with the ordinance without needing to issue a summons for court. Therefore no fines have been collected, Grondin said.

After the Trelawny Tenants Union filed letters and complaints with city officials in 2021, Rice had to refund and retract illegal rent increases, release public documents and inform tenants of their rights, Dolan said.

The city’s Permitting and Inspections Department issued a notice of violation and order to correct to Rice and 657 Congress LLC on Aug. 10. The notice said that proposed rent increases violated city code, tenants had not been provided with a copy of the Rental Housing Rights Document in violation of city code and Rice had not completed registration of units at the property as required.

The notice also said that Rice had agreed to notify tenants that planned rent increases for 2021 were rescinded and that any money received from those increases would be refunded to tenants.

The rent board is scheduled to hold its meeting remotely Wednesday, with an executive session to consult with a city attorney regarding a rent increase appeal for 655 Congress St. The board is scheduled to discuss the appeal after the executive session.

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Members of the tenants union are asking the board to reduce and reallocate a tax-rate rent increase they said they were notified of in November that doesn’t accurately reflect the actual amount of taxes the building pays and hasn’t been correctly divided between residents, commercial space and Rice’s own apartment in the building. They’ve also asked the board to impose more than $100,000 in fines on Rice for previous violations of the rent control ordinance.

MAINTENANCE CONCERNS

One resident, Chance Syme, said he has had problems with a lack of building maintenance while watching the rent for his one-bedroom apartment increase over the last four years from $1,150 to $1,250.

“We believe we’re being outrageously overcharged for a building that is basically falling apart,” Syme said. “Tenants are not getting their needs met.”

Syme said he has raised concerns about needed repairs for a crumbling ceiling or the siding in the bathroom falling off, but the fixes are always temporary. Now, he said, tenants are being charged an unfair increase. “I’m hoping maybe this pushes him to update or at least lower the rent until he can get some things fixed,” Syme said of Rice and the complaint to the rent board.

Scott Whelan, who has been a tenant for five years, said he hasn’t had any major problems but is concerned about rent increases, illegal eviction notices and lack of proper maintenance. “I don’t want to move. It’s more of an issue of whether we have to move,” said Whelan, who just renewed his lease but said he is hoping the board will act on the rent increase.

Wes Pelletier, another resident of the building and a founding member of the tenants union, said landlords like Trelawny need to face consequences for violating the rent control ordinance. “I’m hoping they will fine Rice for every illegal rent raise notification,” Pelletier said. “People moved out because they thought their rent was going to go up, even though it wasn’t allowed to go up.”

Pelletier believes Strimling is being targeted for his involvement in the union. “There’s no question in my mind he’s being retaliated against for organizing tenants,” he said.

Staff Writer Megan Gray contributed to this report. 


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