Proposal to eliminate a Portland rent cap qualifies for June ballot
Mar. 1—Portland landlords seeking to eliminate a cap on how much they can increase rent when an apartment turns over have gathered enough signatures to get their question on the June ballot.
City Clerk Ashley Rand announced Wednesday that the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine handed in 4,013 signatures in support of its referendum, 3,087 of which were verified — more than twice the 1,500 signatures required to get citizen-initiated referendums on the ballot.
The question will go to voters, pending City Council approval. The council has the ability to put the measure on the ballot, adopt the measure outright or add a competing measure to the ballot.
The Committee to Improve Rent Control, the ballot question committee the alliance formed to support the referendum, said in a statement Wednesday night that the question "aims to fix one discreet flaw within Portland's rent control policy that is to blame for (rent increases) while also maintaining all tenant protections."
"The change would apply only when a unit is vacant, and the tenant has left voluntarily," the statement said. "There was broad overwhelming recognition throughout signature collection efforts that this is a straightforward and common-sense fix for Portland housing and far from a wish list for landlords."
According to an initial campaign finance report filed with the city, the committee has raised $25,000 and spent $9,000 with Property Management Services for signature gathering.
The proposal seeks to eliminate the 5% maximum rent increase that's currently allowed when a new tenant comes in and allow landlords to raise rents as much as they want after an apartment voluntarily turns over — though the rest of the rent control ordinance would remain the same.
It comes after Portland voters just approved updates to the city's rent control ordinance put forward by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. It was the only one of the five citizen-initiated referendums to pass in November.
The ordinance now limits annual rent increases to 70% of the rate of inflation plus additional increases that can be sought in a limited number of scenarios, including the 5% allowed when a tenant voluntarily moves out. Rent increases also are limited to no more than 10% annually.
Rose DuBois, chair of DSA's Portland campaign committee, said the group is concerned about the new proposal.
"What it will allow landlords to do is raise rents as much as possible whenever a tenant needs to move or if a new family needs to find a place to live," DuBois said.
The council will hold a first reading of the referendum Monday and is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on March 20. Mayor Kate Snyder said she had a commitment Wednesday night and wasn't able to respond to a question about how the council might act on the referendum.
Councilor Mark Dion, a member of the council's Housing and Economic Development Committee, said he has not made up his mind on what course of action the city should take.
"I understand what the landlords are talking about. If we raise the tax levy, then it does have an impact on their rental units," Dion said. "I have an open mind. I'm waiting to see what the landlords have to say before I decide."
The next municipal election is scheduled for June 13, which is when Rand said voters would see the question if the council votes to put it on the ballot.
The Rental Housing Alliance, previously known as the Southern Maine Landlords Association, advocates on behalf of landlords, property managers and their partners. The group sued the city in 2021 to try and block implementation of the earliest rent control ordinance, which was approved in 2020, also via a citizen-initiated referendum.
The association argued that the ordinance was vague, conflicted with state and federal statutes, and was an improper use of the citizen initiative process. A judge, however, ruled in July 2021 to uphold the ordinance.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.