2016-09-16 / Community

Resignation churns up housing committee

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — When South Portland’s ad hoc affordable housing committee meets next, it will have to do so without the man who inspired its formation, Knightville resident Christopher Kessler.

Shortly after forming the South Portland Tenants Association last fall, Kessler made a presentation before the city council urging that it adopt some form of rent control, along with a ban on so-called “no cause” evictions. The council response was to create an ad hoc committee to seek ways to resolve the city’s burgeoning housing shortage, with Kessler as a member. That group reported back Aug. 22 with a list of recommendations — a list of eight potential solutions that did not include either of Kessler’s calls to action. Although both rent control and eviction bans fell in votes of 10-1 at the committee level, with only Kessler in favor, the council asked the group to reconsider and come back with ideas more in line with Kessler’s vision for rent protections.

However, despite what might have been taken as a vote of confidence, Kessler emailed the council Sept. 1 to say he was done, having accomplished as much as he was able, given what he called “skewed” leanings of other committee members and poor advice from legal counsel.

“In good faith I engaged in discussion and listened to the concerns of landlords, property owners and legal council,” Kessler wrote. “Throughout the sub-committee process and afterward, it became apparent to me that the legal advice provided was coming from a lawyer who primarily represents the interests of landlords, and whose legal advise was strictly her own opinion and lacking any expertise in constitutional law. Statements she made during that sub-committee process were later proven to be incorrect with some research, but unfortunately it had an impact on the process.”

In a subsequent email to the Sentry, Kessler said the attorney in question was Wendy Paradis of Bernstein Shur, invited by committee member Mike Hulsey, who is executive director of South Portland Housing Authority, to give legal advice.

“Her clients typically consist of folks like the SPHA and Port Property,” Kessler wrote. “Unfortunately, there is no written record of her comments during the sub-committee meetings aside from notes I took.

According to Kessler, Paradis said “she felt banning no-cause evictions would be an undue taking and not legal. However, the Supreme Court of the United States has reaffirmed a lower court case in New York that stated price fixing and no-cause eviction regulation was not a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

“Statements like that affected the sub-committee process as we looked to her for facts, not opinion,” Kessler said.

Kessler also faulted work done by the city’s own attorney, Sally Daggett, during the process that led up to the Aug. 22 council meeting.

“Legal advice given by . . . Dagget lacked research and contradicted itself within the same document in regard to what she felt the city could and could not do under home rule,” Kessler said in his letter to the council. “The lack of follow-up given by city staff to these legalities was disappointing, and I felt it demonstrated a lack of will to fully vet what was being proposed. In my opinion, the response (to rent control) of ‘We don’t think so, but let’s see what Portland says,’ isn’t legal advice that the city should have to pay for. Unfortunately, this also steered the committee in its decision making process.”

Kessler said he felt his rent control and eviction ban proposals, submitted “to advocate for policy that would protect renters in South Portland from the increasing frequency of dramatic rent increases, no-cause evictions and subsequent displacement,” was doomed from the start. The subcommittee that vetted those ideas included no renters other than himself, Kessler said, leaving him to debate with “two landlords from SPHA and (Southern Maine Landlord Association), a landlord’s lawyer and a property owner.

“In addition to the combination of political leanings of committee members, two renters resigned from the committee before its completion, making any future vote on priorities skewed,” Kessler wrote. “Even after voicing this concern, the committee still decided to take votes.” The council never replaced the two renters. As such, Kessler said, “I do not feel the committee truly represents the makeup of the community.”

That he added, makes it very unlikely future committee debate will achieve different results, despite the council request for more data and recommendations on renter protection policies.

“Any further engagement in debate on the matter of protections for renters would only be repeating what has already been debated,” Kessler wrote.

Meanwhile, one of the renters who resigned during the committee’s research phase has taken issue with coverage of its work.

In a June 21 interview, committee Chairman Isaac Misiuk said the two members appointed to represent renters on the group had expressed opposition to rent control prior to their resignation “for personal reasons.” That information was repeated in a recent Sentry article, “Council sets housing priority.”

However, one of those members, Adrian Dowling, who along with Misiuk, is on the city planning board, subsequently contacted the paper to say he had been interested in discussing rent control proposals, but none was ever brought forward for debate before the full committee.

“There are dozens of different forms of rent control and many of them are vastly different than the kind of rent control most of us think of when we hear those words – e.g. the elderly couple with the nice Manhattan apartment whose rent hasn’t gone up since 1960,” Dowling wrote in a Sept. 2 email to remaining committee members and city councilors. “None of us . . . favors that type of rent control. I was in favor of discussing the other options for rent moderation and learning more about them – something that never happened during the time I was on the affordable housing committee.”

Attached to his resignation letter, Kessler included a detailed list of proposed consumer protections for renters, which, he said, addressed concerns raised by landlords, South Portland Housing Authority officials and city staff, along with a draft ordinance to enact those ideas.

“There will be legal challenges from landlords who want to protect their interests, just as there are legal challenges from other entities in our community that want to protect their interests,” he said.

“It is up to the council to protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents,” Kessler wrote. “Greater Portland’s social service agencies are calling for (rent control). The mayor of Portland, Ethan Strimling, proposes to do so for its renters. An increasing number of municipalities around the country are doing so in a thoughtful way. South Portland can do the same.”

According to Assistant City Manager Josh Reny, the next meeting of the affordable housing committee is most likely be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 20 in city council chambers.

“At that meeting we will review the information requested by the city council and prepare for the next council workshop,” Reny said.

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