AUGUSTA — A bill to protect Mainers who face rent hikes and evictions and a competing proposal to protect landlords from growing local regulation drew split testimony during a four-hour public hearing Wednesday.

Renters and anti-poverty advocates said the increased tenant protections are needed in the tight market, especially for renters with lower incomes. Landlords and real estate professionals opposed government intervention into the landlord-tenant relationship, saying the rules would do more harm than good in much of the state.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Christopher Kessler, D-South Portland, to increase minimum notification periods for rent increases and terminations of at-will tenancies drew the most back-and-forth between landlords and tenants advocates who testified before the Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee. L.D. 308 would increase the required notification period for rent increases to 75 days from 45 days, and increase the notice to terminate at-will tenancies to 60 days from 30 days.

Kessler said a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that Maine has one of the least affordable markets in the nation, and that longer notification periods are needed for low- and middle-income tenants struggling to find places to live in the competitive rental market.

“Everybody deserves the right to a stable home, especially when they’re having to leave their housing through no fault of their own,” Kessler said. “This bill is a modest proposal to help address that need.”

Portland, South Portland and Yarmouth have adopted local ordinances to increase the required notification of rent increases to 75 days. Portland also wanted to increase the notification period for terminating at-will tenancies, but was told by its attorney that at-will tenancies are governed by the state.

Rapidly rising rents in many parts of the country have sparked similar debates in other state Legislatures, too. Oregon just passed the nation’s first statewide rent control law, which restricts rent hikes and requires more notice of some evictions. And Massachusetts lawmakers are preparing a bill that would allow communities to restrict rent hikes without first getting legislative approval.

Portland resident Wayne Treadwell described himself as middle income during testimony Wednesday. After deciding to move, in part because he learned his rent would increase, Treadwell said it took him three months to find a new place.

“I was lucky,” Treadwell said. “But it was that additional lead time that helped me make a decision.”

Landlords, however, urged the committee to reject the proposal, especially the portion dealing with at-will tenancies. They argued that extending the period of time would compromise their ability to get rid of problem tenants and protect good tenants who might be driven away by their neighbors.

They argued that the formal eviction process can be time-consuming and getting evidence of wrongdoing – especially getting tenants to testify against a trouble tenant – can be difficult, so they use 30-day notices. They’re worried the bill would only allow problem tenants to stay longer without paying any rent.

“The damage comes from losing good tenants because you can’t get rid of (problem tenants) fast enough,” said Kristi Sanos, who owns over 60 units in Bangor.

Others argued that the bill seeks to fix problems most commonly experienced in urban areas. “This is imposing a Portland problem on the rest of the state that is going to have serious consequences,” said Dan Bernier, of the Central Maine Apartment Association.

Tenants and advocates, including Homeless Voices for Justice, Preble Street, Pine Tree Legal and the Maine Equal Justice Partners, also testified in support of the bill. They argued that having additional time to find a new place to live is especially important to low-income tenants who can’t easily save money for new apartments and for people who use housing vouchers.

“Finding stable housing while in extreme poverty is a long and arduous process, where each additional day can make the difference between remaining stably housed or ending up back on the streets,” said Heather Zimmerman, advocacy director at the nonprofit Preble Street.

Meanwhile, a bill that would preempt local control over rental markets was widely panned by tenants and advocates.

Sponsored by Scott Strom, R-Pittsfield, L.D. 522 would prohibit municipalities from regulating rent increases, requiring registration of rental properties and imposing fees specific to rental properties.

“My personal belief is that there are other municipalities that go overboard with (fees) – it’s just another tax,” Strom said, “and in some cases yearly inspections into someone’s personal home and property.”

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and South Portland Mayor Claude Morgan both opposed the bill, arguing that it was a matter of local control. And other tenant advocates argued that rental markets from community to community are different and need to be regulated accordingly.

Strom said his bill was not intended to affect regulations placed on short-term rentals or rental registration programs such as those adopted by Portland and South Portland. Several South Portland residents argued against bill Wednesday, however, arguing that it would interfere with the city’s short-term rentals rules.

The committee also heard opposition to L.D. 473, a bill sponsored by Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, to remove caps on the amount of money a landlord can require a tenant to pay before moving into an apartment. That cap is currently set at two months’ rent.

The committee will schedule a work session on the bills in the coming weeks.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: randybillings

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