2017-03-24 / Front Page

Housing group headed for do-over

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Seven months after an ad hoc committee turned in its report on the shortage of affordable housing in South Portland, along with a list of suggested solutions, the city appears ready to have done an about face and create a new group to ponder a set of more politically progressive ideas the earlier committee dismissed.

“We’re going to reconstitute the committee in the coming weeks,” Assistant City Manager Josh Reny wrote in a March 21 email. “There seems to be support to craft a new mission statement, to review and advise on new policies that were discussed at the recent workshop.”

That session, held March 13 in the Redbank Community Center, saw dozens of residents and landlords speak over the course of two and a half hours for and against a set of proposed renter protections submitted in December by Pine Tree Legal, a statewide nonprofit that provides free legal services to, and advocacy for, lowincome Mainers.

Nodding toward a series of colored banners that hang from the gymnasium walls of the community center, emblazoned with words that include “citizenship” and “responsibility,” Knightville resident Chris Kessler told councilors, “This is what this proposal is all about. It’s about respect and fairness, and caring about renters in South Portland.”

“I beg of you, please, to come to some concrete decision tonight and to take action really soon, by actually putting (the Pine Tree Legal proposals) into the code of ordinances,” Kessler said.

Many of the Pine Tree Legal recommendations, given in the form of a draft ordinance ready-made for a council vote, mirrored suggestions made by Kessler more than a year ago.

Among the proposals are controls on rent increases, prohibitions on refusing apartments to state subsidized renters, limits on when landlords can evict tenants and a ban on no cause evictions.

“At least afford the people who are getting displaced in the community the time they need to land on their feet someplace by increasing the time period they get for notification,” Kessler said. “In this market, 30 days for a notice to quit is just not enough.”

Kessler knows that well enough from personal experience. Although now a homeowner, in 2015, Kessler and his young family faced a no cause eviction notice. Not long after, he founded the South Portland Tenants Association to help others in his situation understand their legal rights. He followed up on that with an appearance before the South Portland City Council, at which he asked councilors to consider enacting renter protections, much like the ones put forward by Pine Tree Legal. In response the council created a 12-person ad hoc committee, with Kessler as a member, to examine ways to bring relief against skyrocketing rents.

The belief that rents were indeed outpacing incomes in South Portland turned out to be more than merely anecdotal in nature. According to an American Community Survey cited by the committee report, gross rents in South Portland – which includes all units with one bedroom apartments and efficiencies – rose 16 percent from 2009 to 2014, climbing from $881 to $1,019. According to committee Chairman Isaac Misiuk, who also is on the planning board, the committee found that even in the Redbank and Brick Hill neighborhoods on South Portland’s west end – often considered by some to be the city’s low-rent district – a two-bedroom unit goes for as much as $1,450 per month.

Since the U.S. National Housing Act of 1937 put a definition on affordable housing, conventional wisdom has maintained that households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments is “cost-burdened.”

According to U.S. Census estimates, the median household income in South Portland was $53,633 as of 2014. Any household that earns less that 80 percent of the median – in South Portland that would be $42,906 – is labeled “low income.” At that income level, an affordable rent would be $1,072 per month, or less.

In South Portland about 4,000 households (36.5 percent of the total) are low-income, surviving in a “cost-burdened” status for housing. The American Community Survey estimates that approximately 1,631 renters paid more than 35 percent of total household income on rent in 2014. That group represents about 15 percent of all households in South Portland.

Still, when South Portland’s ad hoc committee convened last spring, it shied away from the prospect of enacting rent control. Instead, the preferred solution presented to the council was to try to work market forces, hoping a natural decrease in rent prices, or at least a leveling off, would happen naturally, as a result of incentivizing developers to increase the housing stock.

It urged the council to end housing density limits in multi-family neighborhoods as long as new buildings are compatible with local patterns of development; allow conversion of larger single-family homes to multi-family buildings in the West End Residential G Zone; and, beginning with the west end, complete master plans for designated neighborhood activity centers and commercial hubs.

Additionally, it suggested using special contract zones to encourage development of new apartment complexes next to similar sites already in existence and said South Portland should support at least one building project per year aided by lowincome housing tax credits, while creating a registry of existing rents to better track data on affordable housing. Fees from the program should be used to pay for a rental inspection program, the committee determined.

Also put on the table: allowing development of small accessory units, creation of educational materials to foster better landlord/tenant relations, and creating a Neighborhood Land Trust to provide affordable single family homes to moderate income families.

The council liked the registry concept, but otherwise voiced a preference for a course of action more like the one being charted across the river in Portland, where its council was then tackling the same beast. It asked the housing committee to review what Portland was then attempting to do with rent controls and find out whether instituting similar provisions would trigger lawsuits with irate building owners. The council said at the time it planned to readdress the issue in the fall, but as it turned out, the housing committee only ever met one more time, Misiuk said, and then only to review the draft ordinance by then submitted by Pine Tree Legal. The council workshopped that proposal in December, indicating it wanted the housing committee to continue work toward implementing some of its suggestions from August, while continuing to fold in some of Portland’s renter control provisions. By that time, Portland had adopted a Tenant Housing Rights Ordinance. Also, by that time, Kessler had resigned from the committee, saying its membership was not suited to the job at hand. Only two members of the committee were renters in the city, and both resigned before completion of the original report in August.

After that, things lay fallow until Councilor Eben Rose requested a new workshop on the Pine Tree Legal counter-proposal to the housing committee’s recommended course of action.

Although the city council had indicated in August, and again in December that it wanted the housing committee to continue its work, Reny said Tuesday “their mission was essentially complete after the presentation of their final report (in August).”

The March 13 workshop was held in Redbank to make the event more accessible to west end renters. Many of those who attended complained of being priced out of the South Portland housing market.

Amanda Carlson, who now lives in Old Orchard Beach, said she was forced to move six times in less than three years, sometimes evicted before her lease was up, and found herself unable to find work in South Portland that paid enough to afford to live there, despite doing everything she was “supposed to do,” like getting a college education and working multiple jobs. The irony, she said, is that places like the city’s Ferry Village and Willard Beach areas are becoming gentrified, as more people cross the river for the vibe she and others like her helped create.

“I’m an artist. I make pottery. I’m a massage therapist. I am a dancer. I helped make this place cool and I can’t afford to live here,” she said.

However, landlords like Adam Rosenbaum said the market dictates the rent, not the building owners.

“There is definitely a ceiling on these apartments. So, it’s not like landlords can ask whatever they want and they’ll get it. That’s just not the case at all,” he said.

Moreover, enacting rent controls and other provisions will only add to the costs property owners must juggle.

“We would have no choice but to pass some of this on to our renters. So, therein lies some of the challenge,” he said.

Another landlord, Ann Marie Cook, who owns a building in the Willard area, agreed with Rosenbaum. She said city action that increases costs for property owners pushed landlords out of the market.

“When we are talking about rent control, I’m all for helping people, but I still have a mortgage on my rental,” she said. “I still paying property taxes and I have maintenance. And so, in order to have people be able to afford to live in my rental, I can’t afford to have a rental.”

The March 13 meeting ended with no definitive action, apart from general agreement that the housing problem persists. Some, like Councilor Claude Morgan, favored the housing committee’s original recommendation to focus on increasing the number of available housing units. He called the renter protections proposed by Pine Tree Legal “all stick and no carrot,” that would do more to increase risk for building owners and developers, making it less likely they would want to come in and help reverse the trend of having more people wanting to be in South Portland than there are placed for them to live.

However, others, such as Councilor Brad Fox, said while developers deserve a “fair return” on investments, something needs to be done now before any new units come online to help those struggling to make ends meet now.

Although the council has removed housing density limits in the Mill Creek area in hopes of driving mixed-use development, and has plans to do so elsewhere, Fox said he continues to field complaints from residents who live here now, who say they’ve been evicted by “out-of-town corporate landlords” who’d rather swoop in and buy units that exist and jack up the rents, than go to the trouble of building new apartment buildings that might not draw as big a return.

On Tuesday, Reny said he expects the issue will be back on the council’s April 3 agenda.

However, if there are indeed plans to reconstitute the housing committee, Misiuk said that’s news to him.

“My understanding, from conversations with city staff, is that the members of the current housing committee who are willing to come back will be re-appointed, to look at making our recommendations into actual policy,” he said.

“We did take some time and look at the (Pine Tree Legal) proposals and tried to convey our feelings and remarks,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that, as a committee, we originally addressed the proposed ordinances and felt the long term effects were too detrimental to South Portland and would damper future development.”

What the city may eventually do remains up in the air, with an exact charge for any new committee created on April 3 still to be determined.

“We’re looking for a win-win,” Mayor Patti Smith said in wrapping up the March 13 hearing. “Nobody wants to do something that may be harmful. We just need to be reasonable. To my mind, it is so clear that this is a huge issue. We’ve heard talk about more housing, but there’s no silver bullet we are going to create, nothing that is going to change the world tomorrow. We just need to work together, and I agree that we need more carrots than sticks, so that there are more options for people, so that, whether someone works for a restaurant, or a large corporation, there are places for them to live.”

Smith suggested the first step may be to not only reconstitute the ad hoc affordable housing group with a new mission, but to establish a permanent housing committee.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@inthesentry.com.

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