Opponents have organized against an effort to rein in rent increases in Maine’s largest city.

A group calling itself Say No To Rent Control announced its formal opposition Tuesday to Fair Rent Portland‘s initiative to adopt a rent stabilization ordinance by referendum in November.

The announcement sets the stage for a vigorous fall campaign, which comes as longtime residents and low-wage renters worry that a steep rise in rents and the influx of luxury housing is leading to gentrification and a growing affordability gap between incomes and housing costs. The new group is casting the referendum effort as a rent control ordinance that would harm the city’s housing market, although the supporters say the plan meets the definition of modern rent stabilization efforts that have been successful in other states.

Among other things, Fair Rent Portland’s initiative would limit rent increases to the rate of inflation for landlords who own five or more apartments and establish a Rent Board to mediate disputes and fine landlords for improper evictions.

While proponents say a similar ordinance has been successful in West Hollywood, California, Say No To Rent Control argues that the referendum will lead to a decrease in property values and reduced incentives for property improvements. They are also concerned that the proposed Rent Board would give too much control to tenants, since four of the seven members would be renters.

“Simply put, this proposed rent control referendum is reckless and extreme,” spokesman Brit Vitalius said in a prepared statement. “It would cause immediate and lasting problems for the entire City, ultimately resulting in less safe housing, and a decline in neighborhoods, while shifting the property tax burden toward individual homeowners.”

Opponents claim the referendum will not allow landlords to evict problem tenants, though proponents dispute that claim.

Fair Rent Portland member Jack O’Brien has said that landlords can still evict tenants for cause, as long as they follow the proper legal procedure, which includes getting a formal Forcible Entry and Detainer from the courts.

Vitalius said in an interview that the group planned to register as a Political Action Committee, at the suggestion of the city, rather than a Ballot Question Committee. That distinction is significant, because groups must form a PAC once they have raised or spent $1,500, while that threshold is $5,000 for a ballot committee.

Vitalius is also the president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, but he said the PAC has a broader membership.

“This is not just landlords,” he said. “We have contractors really concerned that landlords are going to stop fixing up their units.”

Fair Rent Portland’s proposal would allow landlords to increase their rent beyond inflation, as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Greater Portland, to pay for renovations.

But Vitalius has said that landlords would not be willing to make those investments without a knowing for certain they could recoup those costs.

The ordinance allows landlords to bank annual rent increases that are not used. However, the ordinance would never allow the rent on a single unit to increase by more than 10 percent.

The formal opposition comes after a whiplash week of developments in Fair Rent Portland’s efforts to get the question on the November ballot.

The group submitted their petitions to the City Clerk’s office on Monday, which the city had said was the deadline for the November ballot. That afternoon, however, the city announced that the clerk had made a mistake and that it was too late for the fall vote, because the city ordinance required the council to hold a public hearing on the measure at least 90 days before the election.

To meet that requirement, the petitions would have had to have been submitted at least a month sooner.

Fair Rent Portland quickly organized two rallies , drawing 40 people each, City Hall, while City Councilors and city attorneys looked for ways around the public hearing requirement. The city ultimately determined that the 90 day public hearing requirement, enacted in 2011, was unconstitutional, because it was never approved in a citywide referendum, which is required under the state Constitution.

Since the 2011 change was void, the council only needed 60 days to make the ballot.

However, the city outlined in a news release last week a second option for the council to consider. The council could vote to enact the rent stabilization ordinance, but set an effective date after Election Day. It would then include an advisory question on the ballot. If voters supported the ordinance, the council would let it take effect; if not, they would repeal it.

It plans to hold a public hearing Sept. 6, before making a final decision.

The city has since verified the petitions of Fair Rent Portland and Give Neighborhoods A Voice, which is trying to give residents more leverage in zoning decisions.

This story will be updated.

Randy Billings can be reached at 791-6346 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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