Last autumn, I penned a column with a former Rent Board colleague in support of rent control and tenant protections laid out in the November referendum question “Question C: An Act to Protect Tenants.”

We detailed how its passage would afford both structural and direct safeguards to our community members during the current housing crisis. Following its success at the ballot box, Question C gave Portlanders some of the most robust tenant protections Maine has ever seen. Now, just half a year later, the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine has placed “Question A: An Act to Amend Rent Control and Tenant Protections” on the sparse June 13 ballot. To call this measure misleading is an understatement. 

The RHA has raised more than $80,000 to spend on a historically low turnout election, in an effort to place a landlord-friendly loophole in our current rent control ordinance – an ordinance passed overwhelmingly by Portland voters in two high turnout elections. This same group has launched three different campaigns to deny Portlanders basic tenant protections: in 2017, 2020 and again in 2022. They have also tried and failed to strike down rent control in court. 

While ostensibly modest in its changes, Question A is, at its core, a deregulatory effort pushed by vested interests which will cause rents in Portland to rise dramatically, resulting in potentially drastic and harmful outcomes for low-income and working-class Portlanders. This loophole is known as “vacancy decontrol,” which is another way to say that when someone leaves a unit, the landlord is allowed to raise rent on the new tenant to whatever they want. This system incentivizes and enables the worst landlords to effectively price-gouge those new tenants. 

There is ample empirical evidence demonstrating the negative socio-economic effects of vacancy decontrol. A report from Santa Monica showed that rents almost doubled under vacancy decontrol and led to a widespread lack of affordability. A study from Berkeley, California, and yet another from New York City tell similar cautionary tales. In all of these places, vacancy decontrol led to significantly higher rents and reduced affordability. It was even repealed in New York state in 2019. Under Question A, each time a tenant moves, there will be one less affordable apartment in Portland, leading to what experts call “involuntary displacement.” This process is a known driver of gentrification. 

The current rent stabilization ordinance keeps tenants in cost-stable and predictable housing situations and provides them protections from the unfettered whims of landlords. Rents in Portland have increased by over 80% in the last 10 years. The experiences of tenants from our own city demonstrate that the so-called “free market” has failed in its promise to provide affordable housing. It defies common sense that the RHA would, in a housing crisis, put forward a proposal making Portland less affordable to the majority of our residents. 

Portland is a city of tenants – a majority of our residents are renters, and even more are facing housing insecurity or homelessness. Of that majority, 71% of renters in Portland report being cost-burdened by rent, meaning they are forced to spend more than the recommended 30% of their income on housing.

The group of landlords behind Question A have co-opted the language of housing justice advocates in order to launder their harmful policy, attempting to convince tenants to vote against our own best interests. We can’t let them win. This initiative, if passed, will lead us back onto a path of accelerated gentrification, resulting in more and more of our community members being pushed out of the city. We can’t go back. Please vote No on Question A on June 13.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.