Portland, Maine passed rent control. Here’s how.

The 2017 measure was rejected by almost margin of two to one. The inexperienced activists were vastly outmatched in fundraising and media presence by an opposing “Say No to Rent Control” effort. Additionally, it was a year without an election, which O’Brien says tends to attract low voter turnout with a high proportion of owner voters.

“Tactically it was a mistake,” O’Brien said of the timing. “But [the campaign] prepares us well for the future.

In 2020, the political climate was much more ripe for radical change, says Buddy Moore, Maine DSA member and co-chair of its political education program.

“With COVID, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Trump re-elected, there was a lot of political energy. People were ready to act to bring about economic and racial justice, to put more power back into the hands of the working class,” Moore said.

He describes a unique and difficult mix in Portland, the hub of the more liberal southern part of the purple state.

“Portland is a place that calls itself a foodie’s paradise, but the people who work there can’t afford to live here,” Moore says. “The city is seen as ‘liberal and livable’, but there is a dynamic where working class people who may be more left wing than the liberal ruling class may not have a spokesperson. We have radical organizations here that bring a real radical left aspect to our politics.

Maine DSA launched the People First Portland movement in 2020 to write prescriptions for a list of progressive reforms. They created five referendums covering rent control, fair wages, limits on facial recognition surveillance, a local Green New Deal, and restrictions on short-term rentals like Airbnb.

People First Portland’s membership grew and expanded over the summer, earning partner attorneys and endorsements from groups such as Maine ACLU and Black Power Portland.

Pushing for multiple causes was one of the campaign’s success factors, says O’Brien, who was also involved in that campaign, coordinating the rent control component. The various referenda have helped garner support not only from tenants, but also from labor groups who could benefit from the Green New Deal and increased minimum wage, and others with environmental and civil liberties concerns.

“The idea was to do a bunch of referendums, a vision of what the city could be. What could be done within the municipal administration on issues affecting many types of residents? said O’Brien. “It was a great way to access Portlanders that we hadn’t reached before.”

Organizers went door-to-door and fliers, and they also launched a major social media effort.

“We had a great social media countrysidesays O’Brien. “We had a ‘troll patrol’, where people who knew the media interacted with people who made comments and explained issues. We continued to emphasize how business-friendly the city council was and how it was doing nothing for the homeless, even with hundreds of people visible on the streets.

The campaign got heated, and when local homelessness activists set up camp with tents outside City Hall, DSA members were on hand to provide food and water and charge the phone. The goal was to highlight how the city was not doing enough, while organizations like DSA were responding to real needs in real time.

“An incredible sense of togetherness came out of it,” says O’Brien. “Other organizing groups have entered the fold.”

As for collecting signatures, COVID restrictions prohibited the types of large events where organizers typically showed up with clipboards. But they’ve managed to make inroads during the Black Lives Matter protests, and an alternative strategy — assigning 30 people to get 25 signatures each from their close friends and relations — has worked surprisingly well.

“It was a real godsend,” O’Brien says of the targeted outreach in small groups. “It sowed some very dense conversations and people recruited volunteers in the process.”

A success, “not a panacea”

On Election Day 2020, all measures except short-term rental restrictions adopted. The 57% support for the rent control measure stunned even the organisers.

“We couldn’t believe it. We won even in the districts we thought we were losing. Many were eruptions. It was really hard to think about it,” O’Brien says.

In addition to the 18-month rent freeze and 10% cap, the new law requires landlords to provide tenants with 75 days’ notice before a rent increase and 90 days’ notice before a no-fault eviction; this too prohibits discrimination depending on how the rent is financed, for example with a housing allowance; and requires landlords to provide the city Rental Housing Rights Document to all tenants. The ordinance established a new rent commission to hear tenant complaints, mediate tenant-landlord disputes, and review landlord requests to raise rents for reasons not covered by the ordinance. As is the case with most rent control lawsowner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units are exempt.

Under the 10% cap, landlords can only increase rents for certain reasons: a 5% increase is allowed when a unit is transferred to a new tenant; and increases in local property taxes or the regional consumer price index (CPI) can be passed on. For any other rent increases, such as home renovations, landlords must seek approval from the Rent Board.

When crafting the ordinance, organizers saw 10% as an upper cap – higher than they would have liked, but necessary to balance the needs of homeowners. They expected rent increases to actually be closer to 2 or 3%. But since the measure was passed, inflation (and therefore the CPI) has soared and Portland has instituted a property tax increase, so homeowners have been able to tax the full 10% increase. %.

Even so, Moore believes the rent control measure will help stabilize the city’s rental market and can have far-reaching positive effects.

“We recognize that rent stabilization is one piece of the puzzle. It is not a panacea. But it slows down the process of inflating rents more and more every year,” he says. “Its success marked a significant transfer of power, and hopefully a transfer of wealth, from the liberal capitalist class to the working people.”

Next step: continuous adjustment

People First Portland organizers are still working to improve the ordinance. The possibility of rent increases for vacant units, for example, encourages some landlords to evict tenants.

“We’ve seen comrades and friends kicked out of their homes so a homeowner can make a little extra cash,” Moore says. “We are trying to address this issue in a new ballot question in November, limiting this increase to voluntary moves only.”

O’Brien notes promising signs of a snowball effect: Biddeford, Maine and other towns began talks about stabilizing rents, and when a business owner bought a building in the nearby town of South Portland this year and announced dramatic rent increases, the city is quickly advising adopted a six-month rent cap.

“It’s spreading,” he said. “In South Portland, it wasn’t activists pushing it – the council could see the need. We could see how the conversation evolved.

Editor’s Note: Polling questions in Portland have met with mixed success. Question C, which would institute a 90-day notice for termination of the lease (whether the tenant has a lease or not), set a limit on security deposits and prohibit application fees and other fees, passed with 54% of the vote . Two ballot proposals that would have regulated short-term rentals both failed, with 55% of Portland residents voting no.

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