2017-08-11 / Front Page

City initiates new housing protections

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — At its Monday, Aug. 7 meeting, The South Portland City Council voted 6-1 to create a new chapter on “Housing Security” in the city’s code of ordinances. Among the new rules are a ban on discrimination in housing and an extension on the notice period landlords must give of any rent increases, from 45 days to 75 days. The ordinance draft also creates an educational disclosure that landlords must now give to all tenants, describing their rights and responsibilities and wht exactly is meant by “tenancy at will,” along with other required disclosures. The city also will post links to housing-related resources on the municipal website.

“What we’re asking people to do here is to simply put it all out on the table – if you are going to rent to somebody, let them know what the law is,” said Councilor Claude Moran. “I don’t see this as onerous. If it’s onerous to print out two pages, then I’m living on a different planet. This seems to me to be, really, a simple request.”

Noting the progressive march Portland has taken of late as it attempts to combat what’s been called a “housing crisis” of ever-escalating rents, Morgan said it was incumbent upon South Portland to tread a similar path.

“I think it’s very important that we stay roughly in line with Portland, because we are the greater Portland area, and our housing is interchangeable. Folks go back and forth between six municipalities very easily here,” he said.

However, Councilor Linda Cohen, the lone vote against the proposal, took a different view, suggesting that to mirror Portland too closely can set up a series of false expectations for renters.

“I don’t think that just because the city of Portland is doing it that it necessarily follows that people moving from Portland to South Portland, or to Westbrook or Scarborough or any of the other communities around us, are going to understand. I’m afraid they may expect that the rights they have here in South Portland are going to follow them, and that’s not going to be the case. That’s why I believe in doing these types of things on a statewide or federal level.

“I am not going to vote for this, in keeping with my past practice of not liking to do things piecemeal. We have state and federal laws in place. I don’t like going against those laws and doing something different,” she said.

Cohen did add, however, that she was “very supportive” of the required information disclosures contained in the housing update.

Councilor Maxine Beecher countered Cohen, saying state housing rules are written to accommodate the more rural environment that predominates the balance of Maine.

“It’s more based on whether you live in Lubec, rather than Portland,” she said. “This may not be perfect, but at least it’s a document we can begin to work from.”

“I just feel that maybe we should be working harder as a council to get our state representatives to work harder at the state level for a more regional approach,” Cohen said. “If it’s important to protect tenants in South Portland, then it’s also important to protect them when they move to other communities in this state.”

Most of the remaining councilors said they hoped the suggested revisions are the start of an eventual sea change in housing rules for the city.

“As a progressive, I feel like we need to do more to protect tenants,” said Councillor Brad Fox, the only renter among his council peers. “I know the feelings of the renters in my neighborhood and I know the abuses some of them have suffered. There’s been some talk that we’re crossing some line if we put more protections in place for tenants, but I don’t think that’s true at all, and as we become more cosmopolitanized, I think we will move more in the direction of Portland. We all know rents here are getting out of control in the city. I believe they’ve just gone up again in the Redbank neighborhood.

“We need to do more, but let’s do this much tonight,” Fox said.

“I would like to see it go further, of course, but I am happy it has gone at least this far,” said Councilor Eben Rose.

However, Rose said while the ordinance language presented to the council was the result of nearly two years of work on the topic, the wording ought to have been delivered first in a workshop session, rather than at a business meeting, as the first formal reading for passage.

“I think that would put us on better footing – maybe not in this case, but for some ordinances – to be able to fine tune them and give them a once-over before we go to final passage,” he said. “Seeing it for the first time on a Friday afternoon and then voting on it the following Monday, some of us may have weekends away and may not be able to attend to the detailed language that some of our ordinances require.”

Councilor Susan Henderson said that, like Rose, she hopes to eventually add to the new rules, particularly to extend the notice that must be given for eviction.

“I think 30 days is way too short to find another place,” she said. “But that’s not up for debate tonight. That’s for the future.”

Morgan said he, too, is on board with that tweak, again noting a need to keep pace with Portland.

“The least we can do is line up our vacating process,” he said.

Morgan said the proposal only includes those renter protections the balance of the council agreed on at previous workshops.

“We did some swapping and trading to get to where we are today,” he said.

Mayor Patti Smith echoed others on the council, saying that housing rules are necessarily, and not unexpectedly different as one crosses municipal lines.

“As a city we really haven’t addressed housing in a policy making way in a very long time,” she said. “I personally feel that when you know you can do something that will probably create more good than bad, we should do it. This is some minor relief that will improve our community.

“Let’s take the steps needed to make some kind of progress in our housing, because waiting for the state to do something is sometimes waiting too long,” Smith said.

The new ordinance is expected to go under the gavel for final passage at the Aug. 21 council meeting.

According to City Manager Scott Morelli, that action will be the first of a multi-phase process.

“Phase 2 will explore the feasibility of a rental unit registration program,” he wrote in an Aug. 7 memo to the council. “Phase 3 will further develop certain policies recommended in the (ad hoc housing) committee’s 2016 report.”

South Portland’s ad hoc housing committee was created in early 2016, following a presentation before the council made the previous fall by Knightville resident Chris Kessler, founder of South Portland Tenants Association. That group reported back with a series of eight primary recommendations among a list of 26 suggested actions and policies, designed to combat the city’s housing crisis. But having voted 10-1 to reject both rent controls and an eviction ban, those ideas leaned heavily on combating the city’s housing problem by trying to increase the supply or rental units, rather than mandate conditions for ones that already exist. The balance of the committee felt it was demand for housing, rather the simple landlord greed, that was driving rents skyward and, by easing the way for more housing units, market forces would work their magic. Kessler eventually quit the group, citing a “skewed” conservative bent of some committee members and “flawed” advice from the city attorney.

By that time the group had made its initial report to the council, where most seemed to lean heavily toward Kessler’s view. It asked the committee to consider alternatives to its initial recommendations, to include a greater emphasis on renter protections. However, it would take an unsolicited December 2016 submission of protection rules by Pine Tree Legal, a statewide nonprofit that provides free legal services to, and advocacy for, low income Mainers, to spur the next step – a March 13 council workshop at Redbank Community Center, which saw dozens of residents and landlords speak over the course of two and a half hours for and against the Pine Tree Legal concept.

Following that event, the council reconstituted the committee in April with Morelli ensuring that at least half of its members were renters. Working on a regular basis since then, the group presented a list of 26 recommendations to the council, leading to the multi-phase approach the council embarked upon at its Aug. 7 session.

The ad hoc committee is scheduled to provide a final report to the city council no later than Nov. 30.

Return to top