Rent control advocates and a local tenant union want to join the city of Portland in opposing a lawsuit filed by local landlords looking to nullify a series of renter protections passed by voters last fall.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 28 by the Southern Maine Landlord Association, seeks to block the implementation of “An Act to Protect Tenants,” a citizen initiative approved by 58 percent of the voters in November. It limits most rent increases to the rate of inflation, increases the amount of notice a landlord must provide when not renewing an at-will tenancy and creates a Rent Board to enforce the ordinance and award additional rent increases when appropriate.

People First Portland, a coalition led by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America that led the campaign, and the newly formed Foreside Tenants Union have asked a Cumberland County Superior Court judge to allow them to intervene in the lawsuit in which the landlord association argues that the ordinance conflicts with state and federal statutes, and is an improper use of the citizen initiative process.

“On election day 2020, the people of Portland overwhelmingly came together to demand an end to unpredictable housing costs, arbitrary evictions, and the predations of large landlords,” People First Portland organizer Jack O’Brien said in a written statement. “By suing to block this new ordinance, the SMLA has spoken the quiet part out loud: they wish to maintain their monopoly on power, regardless of their community’s wishes or what is best for the majority of the City’s residents.”

SMLA President Brit Vitalius said the ordinance is not legal and won’t work.

“The referendum from last year is illegal and will push housing out of the reach of more people,” Vitalius said in an email. “Passing complex housing policies without stakeholder input creates unintended consequences and, in this case, creates local ordinances that are ill-conceived and conflict with state and federal laws. The ordinance was poorly drafted and if left to stand, it would hurt landlords and tenants alike.”

According to the motion to intervene, the Foreside Tenants Union was formed in January to represent renters living in properties owned and managed by the Falmouth-based Foreside Real Estate Management company. The union, which consists of 10 members living in seven apartments in four separate buildings, says the company informed some tenants after the election about rent increases, even though the ordinance retroactively set base rents in Portland at June 1 levels.

“In some cases, these increases would be the second in as few as five months, totaling as much as a 29 percent increase from the rent that was in place on June 1, 2020,” the motion states. “Some of FTU’s members have been successful in getting rent increases set aside, but even in those cases were informed that reductions would only take the form of a credit with the increased rent amounts still maintained on the landlord’s ledger.

“The tenants were warned that if the Ordinance was invalidated the increased rent would immediately be reinstated, and ‘the credits would be removed and tenants would be required to true up their balances to the full rent,’ ” the motion continued.

Jeff Martin, president of Foreside Real Estate Management, which manages roughly 100 apartments in Portland, said the company was in the process of taking over management of additional apartment units in the late fall and early winter when those notices went out. He said the property owners set the rents and his company is charged with collecting. However, after reviewing the accounts, his company noticed that rent increase notices went out after June 1 and some tenants were accidentally sent notice of a second increase at the end of the year, he said. Those have since been rolled back, he said.

“We were in a transition process,” Martin said. “It’s our policy not to do more than one increase in a year.”

Martin said the company has advised property owners to reset rents to the June 1 level until the lawsuit is finished. He’s uncertain whether any property owners will require back rent if the ordinance is invalidated.

Martin said he’s offered to meet with the tenants union and extended that offer to an organizer, Sherri Lysy, who never responded to his request.

“It’s too bad,” he said. “I wish it would be less confrontational. We all have to work together on this stuff.”

Lysy said in a written statement that the landlord association ran a “post-election disinformation campaign” that encouraged some landlords not to comply with the new rules, forcing tenants to form a union to stand up against their “predatory actions.”

“That landlords would sue on such thin grounds to continue to raise rents and increase their own passive income in the midst of a pandemic is exactly why we need renter protections in the first place,” she said. “Our community has a right to safe and secure housing. An ethical standard needs to be implemented because without regulation corporate landlords will continue to exploit market rates at the cost of stability for struggling renters.”

After the ordinance was approved by voters, the city published guidance on its website for landlords and tenants and updated it to include short-term rental guidance. It also opened up applications for the Rent Board, receiving 27 applications for nine seats. The city has not yet appointed any members.

Benjamin Gaines, who represents the interveners, said in a written statement that the group is trying to protect all renters in the city and predicted a court victory.

“With this intervention, the Foreside Tenants Union and PFP are standing up for the rights of every renter in Portland to be secure in their homes, and for the rights of the voters in this City to make law,” Gaines said. “We are confident that those rights will prevail.”

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