Portland residents will vote on a ballot measure that would change rent control ordinances

Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 8:32 AM EDT
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PORTLAND, Maine (WMTW) - Portland City Council members heard public comment regarding two competing ballot measures on Tuesday that would change the current rent control ordinances in the City.

The first ballot measure was a citizen initiative put forth by a group of landlords, Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, in early March, after receiving enough signatures from the public to qualify for a city-wide vote. Under current ordinances, landlords can only increase rent by 5% in vacated units. If passed, this ballot measure would allow landlords to increase the rent at their discretion, as long as the tenant has left the unit voluntarily.

Landlords say this would ultimately help renters by discouraging no-cause evictions and eliminating the need for unexpected increases during a renter’s tenancy.

Real estate broker and Vitalius Real Estate Group founder, Britt Vitalius, said it would also allow landlords to cover their expenses and make necessary improvements.

“When the tenant leaves, we can justify improving that unit,” said Vitalius. “When you’ve got a building that the tenant’s been in for ten years, it’s getting pretty tired. Well, if you can’t raise the rent are you going to fix it up? You’re going to spend $10,000 cleaning up that unit if you can only get 5% more? No.”

Council members voted to put the initiative on the ballot during a June 13 election and voted to change the wording of the measure. After deciding the original title was misleading, councilors changed it from “An Act to Improve Tenant Protections” to “An Act to Amend Rent Control and Tenant Protections.”

According to recent data from Zillow, the median rent in Portland is $2,600 a month. Opponents of this ballot measure worry that eliminating the rent cap would drive up rental prices, putting apartments even further out of reach for people who are already struggling to afford rent.

With these concerns in mind, two councilors, Regina Phillips and Anna Trevorrow, co-sponsored a competing ballot initiative, that seeks to give landlords more flexibility while adding more protections for renters.

The measure would allow landlords to increase the rent on vacant apartments by 20% if the landlord provides verification that the tenant voluntarily left their unit. It would also add penalties for no-cause evictions, requiring landlords to pay renters $2,000 or the amount of rent paid for the previous two months, whichever is greater.

“We certainly didn’t want this to be the, you know, any time you leave, you can raise the rent because pretty soon the rent’s going to go from $2,000, possibly up to over $3,000, and then, again, it’s not affordable,” said Phillips.

Council members voted that initiative down by a vote of six to three. Many councilors said they wanted more time to think through the ballot measure. Given strong support expressed during public comment, it’s possible that it could resurface with changes.