The Portland Rent Board put off a decision Wednesday night on a complaint from tenants of the Trelawny Building about what they say are unfair rent increases imposed by their landlord, Geoffrey Rice.

The rent board deliberated and listened to public testimony in a virtual meeting that lasted more than five hours before voting to revisit the issue at a special meeting on Feb. 9.

Representatives of the Trelawny Tenants Union said tax rate rental adjustments amounting to 10 percent in some cases – the notices were issued in November and December 2021 – were unfairly allocated and that some tenants were threatened with eviction if they failed to pay their new monthly rates. The same increase was applied to all apartments in the building at 655 Congress St. regardless of size, tenants said. The tenants union also asked the rent board to fine Rice more than $103,000 for alleged violations of the ordinance.

“If there is no penalty for such behavior, it will continue,” said Matt Walker, a tenant of the Trelawny Building. “We want the city to stand up for its citizens and the renters.”

Rent board Chairman Austin Sims said the appeal was the first of its kind to come before the board since it was formed in November 2020. Members of the board met in executive session for more than an hour before determining that they had jurisdiction over the matter.

“This is not a topic we have previously heard. It’s our first time,” Sims said.

Advertisement

Attorney Paul Bulger spoke on behalf of Rice at Wednesday’s hearing. Bulger said the rent increases were necessary as the result of property tax increases implemented by the city following its revaluation. Inflation also contributed.

Bulger said the rent increase notices given to tenants in 2021 were simply a heads-up, a courtesy that a rent increase adjustment was likely inevitable to cover the costs of rising taxes and inflation. In at least eight cases, funds were returned and monthly rental rates were reset, Bulger said.

“Mr. Rice is not responsible for a person’s loss of work, the impact COVID has had, or a tax increase. Those are real world concerns,” Bulger said.

Bulger admitted that any increase in rent was hard to accept, but he also said none of the increases violated the Rent Control Ordinance.

The board met in executive session a second time late Wednesday to discuss whether a member should recuse himself from any action the rent board might take on the tenants appeal.

Christopher Moore, a tenant representative on the rent board, said he had commented on social media about a story in the Portland Press Herald about the tenants union. After the executive session, he said he could remain impartial and board members agreed to let him continue to participate in the hearing.

Advertisement

Several Trelawny Building tenants testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

Izzy Ostrowski said she received a notice of a rent increase on Nov. 23, 2021.

“It was incredibly destabilizing for me, especially with the lack of housing options and the high cost of living all amid a global pandemic,” Ostrowksi told the rent board.

“It left me feeling panicked and worried about getting evicted,” said another tenant, Amanda Bizzaro, a college student.

Chase Syme said he has lived at the Trelawny Building for six years. He received a handwritten note, making him aware that his rent was about to increase.

“People shouldn’t have to live in constant fear of housing insecurity,” Syme said.

Advertisement

Former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing about the rent hikes. Strimling is facing eviction from his Trelawny Building apartment. Strimling, who advocated for more tenant protection during his time as mayor, says the eviction is in retaliation for his role in organizing the tenants union to address concerns that Rice’s rent increases violated a new city ordinance.

Portland’s Rent Control Ordinance was approved by voters as a referendum question at the Nov. 6, 2020, election, which led to creation of the rent board. The board is comprised of seven members: three tenants, two landlords and two homeowners.

The Rent Control Ordinance established the Jan. 1, 2021, base rent of most rental units in Portland to the rent charged in June 2020 and caps the amount by which landlords may increase that rent annually, according to a description of the ordinance posted on the city’s website. The ordinance provides various protections to tenants, including notice of rent increases.

The rent board has the authority to conduct hearings in response to tenant complaints, mediate disputes between tenants and landlords, and consider landlords’ requests for rent increases. The board’s enforcement agent is the city’s Housing Safety Office.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: