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Phil: When I saw that Portland voters were going back to the ballot regarding rent control, I thought it was an effort to repeal that cacophony you and your colleagues passed in 2020. How naive of me!
Ethan: So naive. The 2020 initiative did a great job protecting tenants. It froze rents for almost two years and limited future increases to the rate of inflation. It gave tenants more protections and created a rent board for both landlords and tenants. So good, even South Portland is looking into it now. That said, a number of landlords worked overtime to get around the rules and the city is not doing enough to enforce the law.
Phil: You mean the predictable reaction by lawyers and city staff to impart their interpretation of what your Democratic Socialists of Maine really meant? Who could have predicted that?
Ethan: If you want to say that we underestimated the greed of bad landlords and the resistance of the city to enforce what almost 60 percent of the people passed, guilty as charged. But thankfully we have a chance to strengthen those pieces.
Phil: Before I comment on this latest and never-ending attempt to regulate freedom of commerce, please give our readers a few of the highlights?
Ethan: It bans application fees, stops landlords from evicting tenants solely for profit and ensures everyone gets 90-day notice before moving. And it blocks landlords from raising the rent beyond the actual costs associated with operating the building.
Phil: Has your group looked at any of the research showing that rent control just reduces the supply of new housing, making the situation worse for any new families that want to find an affordable place to live in your town?
Ethan: Incorrect. Since rent control passed, we have had a record number of new housing units approved by our planning board – over 1,200 units approved! That is 50 percent more than any other 18-month period in recent memory, and 100 percent of them will be rent controlled.
Phil: From planning board approval to cutting the ribbon on a new building is a long step. Let’s see how many of those approvals actually become a place for someone to live.
Ethan: They are already being built. In fact, a developer is currently building the tallest building in Maine in downtown Portland and it will produce 265 new rent-controlled units.
Phil: OK, let’s unpack this. You want to ban landlords from charging a fee to a potential tenant for actual costs they incur like a background and credit check. You are taking away the increase in rent landlords were allowed to charge to offset property tax increases. And you don’t want landlords to receive a measly 5 percent bump in rent if they ask a tenant to leave at the end of their lease?
Ethan: Yes. Not quite. And, you betcha! When someone applies for a job, do you charge them for the background check before hiring them? Of course not. The same should be true for tenants. Landlords can still raise the rent by 70 percent of CPI, which includes any property tax increase. And yes, after watching landlords abuse a provision of the law meant to allow them an increase when they have a turnover (landlords used it as an excuse to evict people), we modified it to only be allowed when the tenant leaves voluntarily.
Phil: Seems to me you want property owners to take all the risk and have a city bureaucracy determine if they get a return on their investment.
Ethan: What I want, and what over 20,000 people in 2020 demanded, is housing that is affordable today and tomorrow.
Phil: Forgive me if I put my trust in private entrepreneurs solving the housing crisis over government bureaucrats.