Housing advocates are urging Maine lawmakers to prohibit landlords from charging application fees to cover the costs of checking up on potential renters.

“The only reason that tenants are willing to pay an application fee at all is because of our massive housing shortage,” said Craig Saddlemire, cooperative development organizer for Lewiston’s Raise-Op Housing Cooperative.

Craig Saddlemire stands in front of a Raise-Op Housing Cooperative building in Lewiston in 2020. Saddlemire told lawmakers this week that he opposes application fees for prospective tenants. “Under the application fee system, not only must tenants beg for housing, but they must also pay to beg,” he said.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file

“If there were enough homes for everyone,” he told legislators this week, “landlords would be competing to attract prospective tenants.”

“Instead, tenants are competing with each other and begging for homes,” Saddlemire said. “Under the application fee system, not only must tenants beg for housing, but they must also pay to beg.”

A bill before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee would bar application fees for residential rental property.

“No one disagrees that screening prospective tenants is a necessary thing to do,” Rep. Christopher Kessler, a South Portland Democrat, said. It’s just that it ought to be “the cost of doing business” for landlords and “not an obstacle to being housed.”


He said the fees, which are typically not refunded if a tenant is rejected, “create barriers for marginalized and vulnerable” people who can’t afford to shell out money every time they seek an apartment.

An opponent of the measure, the Maine Association of Realtors, told the committee that landlords should not have to shoulder the costs of reviewing applications that include “background and criminal history checks, credit checks, property preparations and other expenses associated with a potential tenant.”

The Realtors group also warned the bill “could have considerable unintended consequences” such as forcing higher rents and perhaps causing some owners to skip background checks entirely, “thereby risking potentially unsafe conditions for existing tenants and financial loss to the property owner in the event of damage to the unit.”

It said, too, that axing application fees “could also deter property owners from continuing to lease their property, resulting in a decrease of much-needed rental housing supply.”

But Scott Harriman, a Lewiston city councilor who is also a landlord, said application fees that typically range between $25 and $50 can quickly add up to a big expense for someone searching for a place to live.

“Maine’s housing market is extremely tight and people looking for an apartment must often apply to many different openings in the hopes of hearing back from at least one of them,” Harriman said.


He said landlords collect “more than enough” in rents to cover “this minor expense.”

Jim Lysen, a former city councilor in Lewiston, testified that in the existing housing market, “it is extremely difficult if not impossible to find housing in Maine, which means people often are applying to lots of landlords.”

“Rents are extremely high and rising, which makes paying application fees even less affordable,” he said. “Tenants already have to pay first, last and, often, security deposit all at once.”

Axing application fees, Lysen said, “is not an onerous burden on landlords.”

The Central Maine Apartment Owners Association said it opposes the existing bill. It said its membership has “mixed feelings” about applications.

Most of the landlords it represents don’t like application fees, the association said.


“They feel that not charging fees helps them to get more applications to review and begins with a better working relationship between landlord and future tenant,” it testified.

But others said they rely on online services to check on prospective tenants that they don’t think they should have to pay for, the group said.

Siiri Cressey, a Lewiston resident, said at least one person in the community “did not submit an application for a specific apartment because they could not afford to pay the application fee.”

“I think responsible, considerate landlords and landladies should make it easier for those searching for housing to get into an apartment, not harder,” Cressey said.

At least two states, Maryland and California, have adopted laws that allow prospective tenants to pay a single fee to an online background check firm whose reports must be accepted by landlords without additional charge.

Kessler said, though, that he wants to keep it simple.


If application fees are barred, he said, “landlords will roll the cost of screening into the rent to cover costs, and tenants have that financial hurdle removed.”

There’s also need for more rules or bureaucracy.

“We don’t need to grow the size and scope of state government to solve this problem,” he said, “and we don’t need to create additional requirements for landlords, property managers, screening services or tenants that will be challenging to implement and enforce.”

The committee plans to discuss the issue at a work session Thursday.

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