Proponents of the rent-control measure passed by Portland voters Tuesday celebrated on the steps of City Hall Wednesday afternoon, but critics said it won’t solve the city’s affordable housing problem.

“We have used our collective force to put brakes on the runaway rate hikes driving people out of Portland,” proclaimed Kate Sykes, an organizer who was also an unsuccessful City Council candidate this year.

An Act to Protect Tenants, Question D on the citywide ballot, was one of five referendum questions put forward by People First Portland, a political action committee run by the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. Voters supported the initiative by a large margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.

Kaili and Ed Moore, with their 3-month-old son, Teddy, stand on May Street in Portland on Wednesday in front of the apartment building where they live and rent out the other floors. The two are relatively new landlords who own three apartment houses in Portland, and Kaili worries that the referendum that passed may actually cause rents to increase in the long term. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The measure caps rent increases at the rate of inflation, triples the required notice period to 90 days for landlords who wish to end tenancy for monthly renters without a lease, and creates a seven-member rental board made up of tenants and landlords – no more than three of the latter – appointed by the Portland City Council.

The board would have to approve any rent increases above the inflation rate plus any annual property tax increases, up to 10 percent in any given year, to cover repairs or major upgrades to the property.

Mike Lacourse of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center said the new measure will help make it so “more working people can build their lives in Portland without the constant threat of rising rents and lack of housing.”

The Maine Affordable Housing Coalition did not take a position on the rent-control proposal. Opponents who helped defeat a similar measure in 2017 by an even larger margin say the passage of Question D may actually lead to more regular rent increases, the deterioration of existing rental units and little new rental housing development.

Kaili Moore and her husband Ed live on the second floor of a West End building they bought nearly four years ago, and they rent out the other units. They have purchased two other buildings, fixed them up and rented them out.

“I think what’s hard about the referendum is that the intention is good,” Moore said. “We do have a housing problem in Portland.”

Moore, a licensed social worker who transitioned to property management, said she has seen both sides of the equation. She said Portland has old housing stock with many apartments that need updating after years of neglect.

“We’ll go in and fix them and raise the rent to a market-rate rent,” she said. “We’re not pricing things crazy high. We want to get good tenants, people who can afford to be there.”

If the new measure prevents Moore from asking for market-rate rents, she wondered, “how do we make nice places for people to live and still be fiscally responsible with it?”

David Farmer, treasurer for Building a Better Portland PAC, which opposed Question D, agreed that Portland has a housing affordability problem.

“The proponents of rent control promised it as a solution to that problem,” he said. “But it’s not. Nobody’s rent is going to go down. The cities where rent control’s been tried, it hasn’t worked. The only way to address the lack of affordable housing in Portland is to build more houses.”

Farmer said rent control makes it harder to build new housing because it becomes a less attractive investment. Despite an overwhelming advantage in funding, opponents of the measure could not puncture the progressive appeal of capping rates for renters, who account for roughly 60 percent of the city’s population of 66,500 residents.

Proponents of the measure ran a smart campaign, said Farmer, pointing to a provision in the measure to make it illegal to discriminate against someone in housing when both state and federal laws already prohibit discrimination.

“That was included to take advantage of the urgent need to tackle systemic racism, in Portland, in Maine and in the country,” he said. “That was a smart political ploy. From a policy standpoint, it had no practical impact. But what it did was, it made a policy that was ineffective – and has been ineffective in cities all over the country – and made it about something else.

Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association, called Wednesday a sad day for Portland. He said the referendum is a terrible way to make public policy about nuanced issues, particularly in a compressed election cycle amid a global pandemic.

“It was hard to have substantive discussions about these complex issues in an age of COVID when there were no neighborhood meetings to attend and where the media was consumed by the senate and the presidential race,” Vitalius said. “Portland, as a community, did not really have the ability to understand and debate these complex issues, and we could feel it in our campaign, just trying to get someone to pay attention.”

Approval of the measure means the City Council cannot amend or repeal the ordinance for at least five years. Any changes would have to be done through another referendum.

Back in front of City Hall, Sykes acknowledged the residents who disagreed with People First Portland.

“We know this is not the outcome everyone voted for,” she said. “We welcome others to the table we have laid.”

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