Tenants group calls for rent controls, other protections in South Portland

A perception that there’s a lack of suitable rental housing at reasonable prices in South Portland has led a newly formed tenants group designed to push city leaders to consider instituting some form of rent control.

At a workshop scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 25, the South Portland Tenants Association is set to make a pitch to the City Council that something should be done to better protect tenants, particularly in terms of keeping monthly rents within what most people can afford.

This week Chris Kessler, who founded the local tenants group several months ago, said that rent control is just one of a number of possible solutions to what he called the “growing crisis of a lack of affordable housing.”

His overall goal is for the council to “institute protections for renters that offer stability, and a crucial piece of that would be rent controls.”

He has lived in South Portland for the past eight years and was shocked by the rental market after being evicted “for no cause” from an apartment he’d shared with his family for many years.

“When I got out in the market again what I found was a significant lack of housing and a lack of apartments that I could afford,” Kessler said.

He wanted to remain in South Portland and in the Knightville neighborhood, if possible. He said it was only because he’s been active in the community and had a good reputation that he was able to find housing at all.

Kessler is married with two children and said he’s one of the people in the city who’s paying a substantial amount of his income on rent. He works two jobs, but said the asking price for most two-bedroom apartments in South Portland is out of reach.

Based on his own research, Kessler believes that about a quarter of the city’s renters are paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income toward rent, which leaves little left over for other necessities, such as food and medical care.

While Kessler believes there is a housing crisis in the local rental market, Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and a member of the Maine Apartment Owners and Managers Association, disagrees.

He said that while there was an active rental market last spring, “it’s quiet now and there are apartments to be had.” Vitalius said the call for rent controls in South Portland is draconian, drastic and unwarranted.

Vitalius also said that the numbers Kessler is throwing out to bolster his position are not backed by actual market data. He also argued that there are many ways to offer tenants protection without resorting to rent control.

“There are two sides to this issue,” he said, arguing that rent controls would “dramatically impact” the equity that local apartment building owners have built up, while also artificially lowering the overall value of their properties.

“I’m not sure there is a reason to talk about rent controls,” Vitalius added. “I just don’t believe there is a crisis.”

He said that rents might be higher and the supply of units more limited in trendy neighborhoods, such as Knightville, but that doesn’t necessarily mean renters are unable to find quality housing at a decent price in other areas of South Portland or the region.

And while Vitalius acknowledged that overall rents may be up, he also noted the increase follows several years of flat rents, particularly during the height of the recent economic downturn.

His own research of current market data, Vitalius said, shows that the average rent for a two-bedroom in Greater Portland is more along the lines of $850-$1,100 a month, not the $1,450 cited by Kessler.

The average price Kessler lists for a two-bedroom in South Portland comes from rental listings on craigslist, he said.

Vitalius lives in Yarmouth and owns apartment buildings in both Portland and his hometown. His day job is as a broker selling apartment buildings. In his own buildings, Vitalius said he’s raised the rent on some units, but kept the rent flat for other units simply because he wants to keep his good tenants happy.

He said there’s no doubt that there was a hot rental market last spring, but said the occasional vagaries of the market should not dictate policy. Vitalius also said any talk of rent controls would be “very complicated” and would require “thoughtful discussion,” rather than a knee-jerk reaction to market cycles.

However, Kessler said the typical renter in South Portland earns $35,900 a year, but would need to earn closer to $58,000 in order to spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent, the threshold that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined is “cost burdened.”

In all, Kessler argued, the rental market in South Portland is “out of whack with what people are earning” and can afford in terms of a monthly rent.

The City Council invited Kessler to speak at its workshop next week, which will be held at the Community Center. While there he plans to present a model ordinance that would include rent-control measures.

In a press release announcing the council workshop, Kessler said, “The uncontrolled rising cost of rents and lack of adequate protections for tenants has created a situation where families are facing serious financial hardship, displacement and even homelessness.”

Of the housing stock available in South Portland, more than 40 percent are rental units, according to a 2014 U.S. Census Bureau survey, Kessler said.

But, with higher demand, he feels the city could and should be doing something to also increase the amount of rental housing stock available, which would work in tandem with rent controls to keep housing costs reasonable.

To address what he calls the local housing crisis, Kessler said the South Portland Tenants Association wants the city to authorize the creation of a Rent Board that would oversee implementation of new rent regulations.

Under this proposal, owners of rental units in South Portland would be required to register annually, and the fees would be used to fund the administrative costs of the new Rent Board.

In terms of rent control, the tenants association said any increases in rent should be tied to the area’s consumer price index. In addition, the new regulations would also include a clause requiring evictions to be for just cause only.

The tenants association also wants the city to require landlords to provide relocation payments to tenants for “no-fault” evictions, but the regulations would also give a landlord the right to increase the rent or seek compensation from tenants for capital improvement costs, “other than those attributable to deferred maintenance.”

In his press release, Kessler said, “Rent regulation is a necessary policy to prevent the displacement of community members who live here now while we seek long-term solutions to build more housing for people of all incomes and backgrounds.”

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