2016-09-02 / Front Page

Council sets housing priority

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Although South Portland and its big sister across the river have charted similar waters on a host of issues in recent years, from solar power to sustainability, they appeared to take different paths to solve a burgeoning housing crisis.

Or at least they were, until the city council stepped in.

At an Aug. 24 meeting of Portland’s housing committee, Mayor Ethan Strimling proposed an ordinance that would place restrictions on the frequency and reasons for rent increases and ban “no-cause evictions.” Also put on the table were rules to create automatic one-year leases and to make landlords accept renters who use housing vouchers. The committee is expected to act on those and other suggestions Wednesday, Sept. 14.

Meanwhile, an ad hoc affordable housing committee created by the South Portland City Council in January appeared to be approaching the issue from a different angle – voting in late June to recommend strategies designed to boost the supply of available homes over limits on demand-fueled rent hikes. The committee voted 9-1 against placing rent control and eviction bans on a list of eight top priority courses of action suggested to the council.

But when that list got to the city council at its most recent meeting, Aug. 22, it took the view of Strimling, and of Chris Kessler – the one committee member in favor of rent control.

It was Kessler’s call for rent control in a presentation to the council last fall, following his formation of the South Portland Tenants Association – a move taken in response to his own recent no-cause eviction, to help others in similar straights understand their rights – that prompted formation of the committee. Although the council made no comment on Kessler’s suggestions then, it is on his side now.

Combating rent prices by increasing housing stock is a long-term solution, said Mayor Tom Blake. But he and other councilors said what is needed most is a short-term fix.

“Rent controls, those are things we can do immediately,” he said.

“I think there’s at least this one piece we might want to look at sooner, and that’s (rent) protections,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

Siding with Kessler, who said rent control and other direct tenant protections were “strikingly absent” from the committee’s priority list, the council directed the group to reconvene and come back later this fall with a new, re-prioritized list – one that will look more like the Strimling model.

The council also asked the committee to provide detailed information on where its Portland counterpart elects to go on the issue, as well as a formal legal review on how likely it is a rent control bullet might land the city in court.

Already, Portland city attorney Danielle West-Chuhta has weighed in with an opinion in that regard. In July, she issued a memo warning that until state law is amended, pursuit of rent controls and eviction bans could turn into a legal minefield, one that could easily become “very costly and time-consuming.”

Kessler has said he favors some system that would allow landlords to pass on increased costs from repairs or tax increases over a more draconian “New York City style” of rent control. Still he has said, South Portland needs to step in to keep landlords from pursuit of profit “just because they can.”

As Portland and its surrounding suburbs have filled up, residents have crossed the bridge, so to speak, in greater and greater numbers. Areas such as 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 in a recent interview. “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.

“This isn’t simply a low-income issue. There are people that are at 100 percent of median income – making more than $50,000 a year – who are also insecure with respect to housing,” said Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, during the presentation of committee findings to the council.

“Creating more units, whether they’re market or whether they’re affordable, will help,” said committee member Michael Hulsey, executive director of the South Portland Housing Authority.

Doing so, he added, should help reduce the authority waiting list for subsidized housing, which includes nearly 150 seniors and 200 disabled adults.

Still, Kessler said committee aversion to rent control was almost pre-ordained by the make-up of its membership mix.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Chairman Isaac Misiuk has a different view. He’s 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, and while both resigned for personal reasons, both had also weighed in against rent control.

Instead, the committee chose to approach the issue on a supply-and-demand basis, focusing its efforts, he said.

“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,” Misiuk said, following the wrap of committee work in late June.

“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 were to implement actions already agreed upon by the council – specifically, to follow 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 (TIF) 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 centers and commercial hubs.

Other ideas were to use special contract zones to encourage development of new apartment complexes next to similar sites already in existence, to supporting at least one building project per year supported by low-income housing tax credits, to create a registry if existing rents to better track data on affordable housing, and to establish fees from the registry to pay for a rental inspection program.

The committee also said the city should amend zoning to allow greater development of small accessory units, and increasing the allowable housing density in certain zones. A nod also was given to the creation of educational materials to foster better landlord/tenant relation.

“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.”

Still, while Kessler said committee recommendations are generally good ones, he felt most of the ideas would take too long to implement, leaving too many South Portland residents out in the cold, figuratively if not literally.

“We must increase supply. That 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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