Portland, Maine Passed Rent Control. Here’s How.
The 2017 measure was defeated by a narrow two-to-one margin. The inexperienced activists were severely outnumbered in fundraising and media exposure by a opposing “Say No to Rent Control” effort. Additionally, it was a non-election year that O’Brien says tends to attract low turnout with a high proportion of homeowners.
“That was a tactical mistake,” O’Brien says of the timing. “But [the campaign] position ourselves well for the future.”
In 2020, the political climate was much more ripe for radical change, says Buddy Moore, a member of the Maine DSA and co-chair of its citizenship education program.
“With COVID, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Trump running for re-election – there was a lot of political energy. People were willing to act to bring about economic and racial justice, to put more power back into the hands of the working class,” says Moore.
He describes a unique and troubled mix in Portland, the center of the more liberal southern part of the purple state.
“Portland is a place that bills itself as a foodie’s paradise, but the people who work here can’t afford to live here,” says Moore. “The city is considered ‘liberal and livable’, but there is a dynamic where working-class people, who may be more left-leaning than the liberal ruling class, may not have a voice. We have radical organizations here that bring a real radical left aspect to our politics.”
Maine DSA launched the People First Portland movement in 2020 to draft regulations for a series of progressive reforms. They created five referendums on rent controls, fair wages, limits on facial recognition surveillance, a local Green New Deal and restrictions on short-term rentals like Airbnb.
People First Portland’s membership expanded and expanded over the summer, gaining legal partners and support from groups like the Maine ACLU and Black Power Portland.
Pushing for multiple causes was one of the campaign’s success factors, says O’Brien, who was also involved with that campaign and coordinated the rent control strand. The various referendums helped garner support not only from tenants but also from working class groups who would benefit from the Green New Deal and the minimum wage increase, as well as others with environmental and civil rights concerns.
“The idea was, let’s do some referendums – a vision of what the city could be like. What could the city government do about issues that affect many types of residents?” says O’Brien. “It was a good way to reach Portlander that we hadn’t reached before.”
Organizers went ahead with door knockers and flyers, and also launched a significant effort on social media.
“We had a good one social media campaign‘ says O’Brien. “We had a ‘troll patrol’ where media savvy people interacted with people who commented and explained the problems. We kept emphasizing how pro-business the city council was and didn’t do anything about the homeless, even though hundreds of people could be seen on the streets.”
The campaign heated up and when local homelessness activists held a camp with tents outside City Hall, DSA members were on hand to provide food, water and charge phones. The aim was to highlight that the city is not doing enough, while organizations like DSA responded to real needs in real time.
“There was an incredible sense of solidarity that came out of it,” says O’Brien. “Other organizational groups came along.”
When collecting signatures, COVID restrictions banned the kind of big events where organizers usually showed up with clipboards. But they were able to gain a foothold in the Black Lives Matter protests, and an alternative strategy — allocating 30 people to each get 25 signatures from their close friends and connections — worked surprisingly well.
“It was a real blessing,” O’Brien says of targeting small groups. “It led to some very intense conversations, and people recruited volunteers along the way.”
A success, “no panacea”
On Election Day 2020, all measures were passed except for short-term rental restrictions. Even the organizers were stunned by the approval of 57 percent of the rental price brake.
“We couldn’t believe it. We even won in districts we thought we were going to lose. Many were blowouts. It was really difficult to get into,” says O’Brien.
In addition to the 18-month rent freeze and 10 percent cap, the new law requires landlords to give tenants 75 days’ notice before a rent increase and 90 days’ notice before a no-fault eviction; it also prohibits discrimination based on how rent is funded, e.g. B. for housing benefit; and requires landlords to provide all tenants with the city’s rental housing law document. The ordinance established a new Pensions Authority to hear tenant complaints, mediate in disputes between tenants and landlords, and consider landlord requests for rent increases for reasons not covered by the ordinance. As with most rent control laws, owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units are exempt.
Within the 10 percent cap, landlords can increase rents only for specific reasons: a 5 percent increase is allowed when a unit is handed over to a new tenant; and increases in local property taxes or the regional consumer price index (CPI) may be passed on. For all other rent increases, e.g. B. Property renovations, landlords must obtain Rent Board approval.
When drafting the regulation, organizers saw 10 per cent as the upper limit – higher than they would have liked but necessary to strike a balance with landlords’ needs. They expected rent increases that would effectively be closer to 2 or 3 percent. But since the measure passed, inflation (and with it the CPI) has risen and Portland has introduced a property tax hike — allowing landlords to push through the full 10 percent increase.
Still, Moore believes the rent control measure will help stabilize the city’s rental market and can have far-reaching positive effects.
“We recognize that stabilizing rents is one piece of the puzzle. It’s not a panacea. But it slows down the rent inflation process more and more every year,” he says. “Their success marked a significant transfer of power and hopefully a transfer of wealth from the liberal capitalized class to the workers.”
Next up: Continued Optimization
People First Portland organizers are still working to improve the ordinance. The possibility of increasing rents for vacant apartments, for example, tempts some landlords to evict tenants.
“We’ve seen comrades and friends removed from their homes so a landlord can make a little extra cash,” says Moore. “We’re looking to address this in a new ballot in November and limit this increase to voluntary movers only.”
O’Brien notes promising signs of a snowball effect: Biddeford, Maine and other cities have entered talks to stabilize rents, and when a business owner bought a building in the nearby city of South Portland earlier this year and announced dramatic rent increases, the city of Der Council quickly passed a six-month rent cap.
“It’s spreading,” he says. “In South Portland, it wasn’t the activists who pushed for it – the local council saw the need. We could see how the conversation developed.”
Editor’s note: The voting questions in Portland met with mixed success. Question C, which would introduce a 90-day notice period for terminating a lease (regardless of whether or not the tenant had a lease), impose a limit on deposits, and prohibit application fees and other fees, passed with 54 percent of the vote. Two ballot proposals that would have regulated short-term rents both failed, with 55 percent of Portland residents voting no.