2016-07-08 / Front Page

City housing suggestions set

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – A special ad hoc committee has finalized a list of recommendations for how to solve South Portland’s housing crisis, but one member of that group says he “definitely” plans to present “a minority opinion.”

“In my mind, it didn’t go perfectly, for sure,” said Chris Kessler.

Last fall, Kessler approached the city council with an idea to implement some form of rent control. He said he understood a New York City-style of rent control would not work – that approach is “wrought with problems,” he said – but something that would allow landlords to pass on increased costs from repairs or tax increases, but offer protection from an untenable pursuit of profit.

That’s important, Kessler said, because South Portland is becoming increasingly gentrified. As Portland and its surrounding suburbs have filled up, residents have crossed the bridge, so to speak, in greater numbers. Areas including Ferry Village and Willard Square, once working neighborhoods, have become hot tickets in the real estate market.

“These were neighborhoods that were undesirable at one point, because everybody who was working class lived near work, which was near water,” Kessler said. “Now, it’s just nice to live near the water. So, you see the opposite happening. Everybody who is working service jobs, which is pretty much all that’s left for a lot of people, they’re living on the west side of the city. It’s just not as pleasant to live over there, so that’s what people can afford. But even in places like Redbank Village, you’re seeing rents increase dramatically, and for no other reason than because landlords can get it. So, there are many who think nothing about kicking someone out just so they can get more out of somebody else, leaving that person with, often times, no place to go.”

According to committee research, even on the West End, in neighborhoods sometimes viewed in the public consciousness as low rent, the average two-bedroom apartment goes for $1,350 to $1,450 per month.

Kessler’s story is typical of many Maine converts. He and his wife vacationed in the area and, falling in love with the state, decided to make it their home, making the move permanent eight years ago, settling on South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood as the perfect mixed-use, walkable community. Both of their young children have since been born here.

But a little more than a year ago, the Kesslers had a crisis when hit with a sudden eviction notice after complaining about pesticide use in the lawn. The notice gave them 60 days to find a new home. They did, just shy of the deadline, and, thankfully, they say, still in Knightville. However, where they were paying $825 per month, suddenly they found rent eating up 50 percent of their monthly income.

In response, Kessler founded the South Portland Tenants Association, to help others facing eviction and disputes with landlords understand their rights. That led him to approach the city council, which, though it did not act on his suggestions for rent control measures, or a ban on no-cause evictions, did recognize a burgeoning issue.

In January, the council created an affordable housing committee, tasking it with studying the issue and reporting back with list of possible solutions.

In a marathon meeting June 21 that lasted more than three hours, the committee voted on a list of nearly 30 individual recommendations, narrowing them down to a top eight due to be delivered to the city council July 25.

However, both a rent control measure, and a ban on no-cause evictions, failed to make the cut. The final vote in each case was 9-1, with Kessler the only proponent.

But that vote, Kessler claims, was almost pre-ordained.

“My whole perspective of the group was that it was definitely well-intentioned, in terms of having people who represent different areas – landlords, developers, renters – but nobody really fit the bill of the people I’m trying to advocate for,” Kessler said in a recent interview. “Pretty typically, those that are most disenfranchised are least involved in the political process. It’s hard to get those who are most affected by the problem to actually get involved. These are the people who are busy just trying to make it, to get by.

“I think the committee is afraid to do anything that will possibly upset landlords and property owners. They fear that implementing any form of rent control will slow development or cause landlords to neglect maintenance on their buildings,” he said. “I just really don’t feel that the committee truly understands the gravity of what renters are facing in South Portland.”

Committee Chairman Isaac Misiuk is also a renter, he said, although he was appointed to the committee as a member of the planning board. But the group did have two members there the represent renters, he said, and while both resigned for personal reasons before the June 21 vote, both had also weighed in at previous meetings against rent control.

Instead, the committee chose to approach the issue on a supply-and-demand basis, focusing its efforts on ways to increase supply, rather than quell demand.

“We’re not New York City. We’re not to that point yet, and I think there are other ways to drive down the cost of rent, and I think the No. 1 thing is saturating the market with as many units as we can,” he said, following the June 21 meeting.

“At some point we are going to hit an equilibrium, and I’m very hopeful that what we’ve done will be the start of getting us there, without the big government approach of ‘do this’ because government knows better than anyone else,” Misiuk said.

Top recommendations of the committee are to implement things government has already decided, or to undo things previously decided.

Top on the list is to implement housing-related recommendations in the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Neighborhood Master Plans. These include: reducing parking standards by treating small apartments as fractional units for density purposes; expanding the Transit Oriented Development District to increase funds for public transportation; overlooking density limits in multi-family neighborhoods as long as new building is compatible with locals patterns of development; allow conversion of larger single-family homes to multi-family buildings in the West End Residential G Zone; and, beginning with West End, complete master plans for designated neighborhood activity cen- ters and commercial hubs.

The other most-popular pick, also garnering seven committee member votes, was to use special contract zones to encourage development of new apartment complexes next to similar sites already in existence.

Two suggestions drew six votes, each, including committing South Portland to supporting at least one building project per year supported by low-income housing tax credits, and creating a registry of existing rents to better track data on affordable housing, with fees from the program used to pay for a rental inspection program.

Five votes each went to amending zoning to allow greater development of small accessory units and to increasing the allowable density in certain zones, while four votes were given to creation of educational materials to foster better landlord/ tenant relations, and to creating a Neighborhood Land Trust to provide affordable single family homes to moderate income families.

“These are a mix of long-term and short-term solutions,” Misiuk said. “Some are things that are going to need to be in place for a while, where it’s not a case of, we put a Band-Aid on it and its fixed. Because there really isn’t an answer like that for housing.”

Kessler likes the registry idea, he acknowledges the committee recommendations are generally good ones. However, he feels that most of those ideas will take too long to implement, leaving too many South Portland residents out in the cold, figurative, and, perhaps, literally.

“We must increase supply. That’s must happen, or else we’ll continue to see these skyrocketing prices, and they’re already outrageous right now.” he said. “So, that should be a top priority. But those solutions are going to be years in the making, and we have a crisis happening right now.”

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