The ordinarily sleepy June ballot is host to a battle over the terms and conditions of Portland’s rent control ordinance.

Question A, the proposal up for consideration by voters on June 13, would eliminate the 5% cap on increases to rents where a tenant leaves a unit voluntarily.

Notwithstanding its relatively limited scope (the rest of the ordinance would stay as it is), this editorial board opposes Question A because of what it stands to do to tenants’ ability to rent in the city – a city of tenants.

Question A was devised and developed by a group of local landlords, the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, which gathered 1,500 signatures to get it on the ballot.

Back in February, Brit Vitalius, president of the group, told the Press Herald that Question A would fix things such that “Portland renters can realize the actual intent of rent control – to prevent unwieldy and unpredictable increases in rent year to year.”

It seems to us that Question A, by stripping out the cap on increases in new rents, all but guarantees unwieldiness and unpredictability.


Although its supporters take issue with the characterization, if the question passes, and an existing tenant moves out on their terms, the new “base” rent can be set at whatever price the person charging the rent likes.

The counterargument to that is that the market will only yield so much; that “as much as the landlord likes” is a fallacy because, at the end of the day, people will only pay so much for an apartment. In theory, sure. In practice, we know people are paying name-your-price sums for apartments in Portland.

Some supporters of Question A have suggested that the year-to-year increases being levied on an existing tenants under the current rent control ordinance (themselves capped at an absolute maximum of 10% annually) wouldn’t need to be charged were there flexibility to revise upward once those existing tenants move out. The difference for us is that these increases are – it’s in the name – controlled.

Supporters of Question A point out that tenants already in place in Portland would continue to be safe. We’d point out that this safety is contingent on tenants staying in place – and they move.

The other major argument in favor of A is that the 5% cap leaves landlords hamstrung when it comes to funding repairs and upgrades, leading to either deterioration of housing stock, a chilling effect on would-be landlords, or an exodus of existing landlords who can no longer get the math to work. Like many aspects of its application, whether these could be upshots of the existing ordinance remains to be seen.

Let’s say Question A passes next week. A subset of Portland apartments, those voluntarily vacated, could have brand-new base rents attached to them.


Then what? As we’ve seen in recent years, citizens’ groups are very well able to put measures and countermeasures and supplementary measures on ballot papers. They are often handsomely supported by in-state and out-of-state backers; we’re reporting Tuesday on a $100,000 cash infusion from the National Association of Realtors in support of Question A.

Several people we spoke with acknowledged the high likelihood of the proposal, if passed, being undone come November.

Both sides will tell you that this game of ballot question ping-pong comes from an expectation that the Portland City Council will not take up the regulation of rental stock with sufficient rigor.

What kind of stop-start, conflicted rulemaking has resulted from this expectation? How much does it leave to caprice, chance or to cold, hard cash? How much time and energy is wasted maneuvering on such shifting sands as these?

The practice of repeatedly going back to city voters via referendum leads to complexity and confusion. The election signage springs up with perennial reliability. And the council process, preferable as we maintain it is, fades further from view.

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.