A pedestrian walks past a campaign sign created by Jack O’Brien, who said they’re meant to be a satirical way of addressing rent-control efforts in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland has fielded 182 complaints, mandated 150 cases of remedial action and issued 37 violations against landlords since the city’s rent control ordinance took effect three years ago.

One landlord, Geoffrey Rice, is connected to 27 violations alone and has paid thousands in back rent to tenants, according to data analyzed by the the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

But the city has yet to issue a single fine.

“Our ultimate goal is seeking compliance, and so give the landlord the opportunity to comply and then we would only seek civil penalties if they weren’t complying with us,” said Zachary Lenhert, the city’s licensing and housing safety manager. “We give people the benefit of the doubt until we’re able to prove otherwise.”

A report last week from the city’s rent board also suggests landlords may have violated the ordinance at thousands of units across the city.

The lack of strong enforcement, coupled with the high volume of potential violations that never get investigated, has some concerned that Portland’s ordinance has limited impact.


Matthew Walker, a member of a local tenants’ union who sits on the Portland rent board, is among those who believes more could be done.

“It’s frustrating because the same thing is going to keep happening unless the city wants to put a stop to it,” he said. “You’re not going to fix that behavior with this type of procedure. You need to be a little more aggressive in enforcing. Or else you’re just going to get the same problems from the same people until there’s disincentive to not continue to (violate the ordinance).”

Portland voters passed the rent control ordinance in a 2020 referendum that was pushed by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. The group hoped a new law would stabilize rent costs, prevent people from being priced out of living in Portland, and share power between landlords and tenants.

The ordinance has been amended multiple times since, but referendums to further relax its rules have been soundly rejected by voters.

In its current form, the ordinance allows annual rent increases based on how much the cost of living has risen or if there is turnover in a unit. The maximum increase in a year is 10%, although landlords are allowed to bank increases for the following year if they hit that limit.

The law also established a rent board that is tasked with approving increases and overseeing hearings with tenants and landlords when they violate the ordinance. The board also has the power to recommend fines, but the Housing Safety Office has the ultimate say in whether to enforce the penalties.


So far, none have been approved.

There are likely more violations – and back rent owed – that aren’t captured in the city’s online public information portal. Along with inconsistencies in how an inspector labels a case, the Housing Safety Office is still ironing out the kinks in the database. The city still needs to add documents for many cases as well, Lenhert said.

But more notably, the rent board issued a report to the Portland City Council on Jan. 9 highlighting thousands of instances where landlords provided information to the city that was likely incorrect or in clear violation of the ordinance.

The board found nearly 2,500 cases where landlords reported rental increases that surpassed specific caps set from June 2020 to November 2022. There are thousands of other instances that raised eyebrows on the rent board, bringing into question just how reliable landlords are when they provide information to the Housing Safety Office. Portland landlords currently claim they charge $0 at 451 units across the city and previously charged $0 at 787 units – either suggesting no rent was charged or the unit had not existed altogether.

The rent board believes this information landlords are providing is “unlikely” accurate.

The current system makes it impossible to determine how many times landlords violated the rules and how much money they were required to pay back to tenants for overcharging on rent. The city was not able to provide this specific information by the end of last week.



Rice is the only landlord who has faced the rent control board in mediation thus far.

He owns 30 buildings across the city, many of which are managed by his agency, Apartment Mart. Those buildings include the Trelawny Building (at 655 Congress Street) and 59 State Street.

Rice was at the center of the rental board’s first rent increase appeal in early 2022, when tenants at the Trelawny Building and members of the building’s tenants’ union alleged Rice unfairly allocated tax rate rental adjustments and did not give the required 90-day notice for rent increases.

The board ultimately ruled in the union’s favor and recommended the Housing Safety Office fine Rice $15,300 for improperly notifying tenants about the increases.

But the city chose not to adopt that recommendation in favor of working with Rice and his tenants to find a solution.


“The Housing Safety Office considered whether imposition of fines was appropriate in this matter pursuant to the decision and, considering all of the circumstances, including ongoing cooperation by the landlord, has decided against imposing fines,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said at the time.

Rice’s building and management companies have violated the rent control ordinance 27 times, according to the city’s database, although that number might be incomplete. The city had not provided data on how many complaints and violations Rice faced by the end of last week.

As recently as November 2023, multiple tenants living at 59 State Street say they were overcharged for more than two years. In the same month, Rice was required to repay a tenant at 655 Congress Street $2,546 for overcharging rent for nearly two years, according to city documents.

Rice declined to be interviewed, but his lawyer, Paul Bulger, questioned the fairness and logic behind the rent control ordinance, saying it retroactively punishes landlords and limits many from making needed repairs and upgrades to their buildings.

“Mr. Rice unintentionally committed a violation and he fixed it,” Bulger said of violations from 2021. “Mr. Rice attempted to follow the rules and he got punished for it. And this record of violations unfairly besmirches his record.”

Bulger did not answer questions about why Rice continues to struggle with adhering to the ordinance.


The city has not imposed any fines on Rice, or on anyone. Seeking voluntary compliance over retribution has been the impetus for bypassing penalties, Lenhert said. Most violations are honest mistakes stemming from a lack of understanding because the rent control rules are so complicated, he said.

“If we caught them for the same thing or found a violation for the same thing multiple times, we would seek fines,” Lenhert said. “Or if we found a violation and they were refusing to comply with our order we would go to court to seek a court order to get them to comply.”

Lenhert is hopeful that enforcement will grow even stronger with new city employees dedicated to overseeing rent control – something City Manager Danielle West included in the 2023-2024 budget. With that extra staffing, the Housing Safety Office is gradually building up a database of rental units across the city that the city can reference when facing rent increase requests.

Apartment buildings in Portland on Sept. 8. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer, file


Some tenants, meanwhile, remain frustrated that t city is being too lax in enforcing the ordinance.

Ethan Strimling, a former mayor of Portland and a member of the tenants’ union at the Trelawny Building and 59 State Street, believes the city’s choice to resolve violations without financial penalties has created a self-perpetuating cycle.


“There’s simply no incentive for any landlord to get this right if there’s no penalty,” he said. “If you’re only going to make me pay back what I overcharged, why wouldn’t I overcharge until somebody figures it out?”

Strimling has been facing eviction over what he claims is retaliation for his involvement in the tenants’ union. Rice had previously said that he chose not to renew Strimling’s lease because of conflict over rent increases. The matter has not been resolved and awaits a jury trial.

Walker, a member of both the rent board member and the tenants’ union, said collective action has been one way of forcing the city’s hand.

“We have strength and safety in numbers,” he said. “We look at other cases that are similar to that so that we can (file complaints) in a big batch and say, ‘here’s a swath of problems’ so that you can’t identify a single person complaining. It hides who the real complainer is.”

But few Portland tenants have access to existing unions, Strimling said, and they’re either afraid to speak out or unaware of their rights altogether. That leads Walker and Strimling to believe there are many more violations than the city has yet to discover.

Lately, Walker has advised tenants in smaller buildings to refrain from filing complaints with the city.


“I do worry that I am going to get people kicked out of their place by telling them to report things because you have to stick your neck out,” he said.  “Everyone knows that there’s a power imbalance between the tenant and the landlord, so you try not to rock the boat too much.”

Walker is worried, too, because his own lease is soon up for renewal.

“You can take your landlord to the rent board, and they might agree with you and get your rent put back to the right number,” he said. “But you can almost guarantee that the next time your lease comes up, you’re not going to be offered a new lease.”

That’s where Walker and Strimling believe the city needs to be more proactive rather than leaving that work for tenants. Walker wants the Housing Safety Office to help landlords determine what rent they can charge when they register their units with the city each year.

Strimling said the city should not only audit landlords but “make sure the tenants know their rights and understand their protections under this law.”

“And I think the city council has to step up and start to provide much greater oversight. The housing committee should be asking a lot of very hard questions,” he added.

Walker has pushed for the rent board to make some of those recommendations, which the city council reviewed on Wednesday, Jan. 17. No action was taken.

Lenhert maintained that the system is still new and it will take time before things run as intended.

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