The mayor’s proposed rental regulations could hit legal roadblocks, experts say

Good evening from the BDN Portland office on Congress Street. Let there be news.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling delivers his inaugural address Monday night at the Ocean Gateway Terminal. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling delivers his inaugural address at the Ocean Gateway Terminal. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

What we’re talking about

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling is proposing a series of regulations he hopes will better protect renters — but some legal experts, including the city’s own corporate counsel, have concerns about whether some of them would stand a constitutional test and be enforceable.

In the proposal, released ahead of tonight’s Housing Committee meeting, the city would limit how often a landlord can raise rents. It also would mandate initial lease terms of one year in order to curb the prevalence of at-will tenancy — a rental arrangement that enabled a landlord to simultaneously kick 20 low-income tenants out of a Grant Street apartment building last winter. Strimling also wants to block landlords from discriminating against those paying through housing vouchers and limit the number of tenants the landlord can evict for “no cause” in a given year to between 25 and 40 percent of those in a building, depending on its size.

Strimling’s proposal also would bar landlords from increasing rent in the first year of a lease or if any building the landlord owns has been cited for a violation of housing safety laws. It also would require 90 days notice of a rent increase, up from the state requirement of 45.

The proposal that all leases in Portland have an initial term of one year is meant to “move away from at-will tenancy,” Strimling said Wednesday afternoon. But if enacted, the new ordinance would allow the terms of a lease to be shortened after initially signed by the landlord and tenant. This measure effectively would block people from being pressured into accepting at-will rental, which allows either party to terminate the agreement with 30 days notice, the mayor said.

But a Portland real estate lawyer said this proposal is likely to run afoul of the constitutionally protected right to enter into contracts.

“Any proposal that the city or mayor comes up with that affects a person’s ability to enter into a contract under their own terms, that’s going to face a lot of legal scrutiny,” said Regan Sweeney, adding that Portland’s housing crunch is unlikely to meet the high legal bar required to broadly limit a legal right.

Strimling acknowledged that there is legal disagreement over this point and could not cite any other cities that have similar one-year lease requirements, but also said that “if we feel like our residents deserve the security of a lease, we should be prepared to fight for it.”

Under the proposed ordinances, the city also would require 90 days notice if a landlord or tenant does not wish to renew an existing lease at the end of its term, which Sweeney said could be a problem for landlords who are only able to ask for two months in security deposit from tenants under Maine law.

“If the provision gets pushed out to 90 days without a subsequent change to state law, [a tenant] could trash the place, they could not pay rent for those three months. It creates a lot of risk for the landlord,” said Sweeney, adding that a three-month security deposit likely would be burdensome for tenants.

Portland legal counsel Danielle West-Chuhta warned in a July memo to the Housing Committee that while the city has the legal authority to require longer notice for the termination of an at-will rental or eviction, “any City regulation in this area is likely to face challenges (both legal and logistical … ) which may prove very costly and time consuming.”

The mayor also proposes that the city create a position of “rental housing ombudsperson” to provide information to both tenants and landlords — which would not actually have any enforcement power.

The proposed regulations will be presented at tonight’s Housing Committee meeting, along with those from other city councilors, but are unlikely to be voted on until the next meeting in September Jake Bleiberg

ICYMI

No compromise reached in meeting between Munjoy Hill residents and developerThe Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization set up yesterday’s meeting in hopes of persuading a Saco-based developer to shorten a proposed condominium building so its top story doesn’t block views of Fort Sumner Park — and to avoid a political spat over water views like the one that embroiled a Fore Street development last year. But that didn’t happen.

“We did ask [the developer] point blank if removal of the top story, the sixth story, was negotiable, but he didn’t really comment on that,” said Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization President Jay Norris.

With a new fried chicken joint open, the man behind Slab and Nosh sets his sights on the next thing — Jason Loring, the restaurateur behind Nosh Kitchen Bar, Slab and Rhum, opened his newest joint — Big J’s Chicken Shack — today at Thompson’s Point. Kathleen Pierce reports:

Loring, manning a new Japanese waffle machine in the kitchen, was already focused on his next endeavor. “The clam shack is not dead,” said the owner, whose partners in this wing ding are the team behind Thompson’s Point, a former industrial zone-turned entertainment oasis. As soon as utilities issues near the water’s edge can be worked out, Loring will strike again.

Maine’s weird history of mystery snakes — Loren Coleman of the International Cryptozoological Museum in Portland weighs in on Wessie:

The October 1878 sightings by the inhabitants of Winslow, Maine, on the banks of the Kennebec River, tell of a large, spotted snake, eight to 10-feet long, accompanied two smaller snakes. First seen by Mrs. Smiley, and then by Deacon Palmer, these two people were the primary eyewitnesses. Palmer felt for sure the giant mystery snake was 10 feet long.

Then in August 1895, a man in Gardiner, near the Pickering farm on the Brunswick Road, said he saw a “10-footer” — a giant snake unknown for the area.

The Big Idea

Obama signs order creating North Woods national monument — Nick Sambides Jr. follows up on yesterday’s huge news with the official announcement that’s 22 years in the making:  

President Barack Obama signed into law the creation of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Wednesday, a day after landowner Roxanne Quimby transferred 87,563 acres of her property in Maine to the federal government.


Got any interesting story ideas, suggestions or links to share? Email Dan MacLeod at dmacleod@bangordailynews.com, or tweet @dsmacleod.

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Dan MacLeod

About Dan MacLeod

Dan MacLeod is the editor of BDN Portland. He's an Orland native who first moved to Portland in 2002. He's been a journalist since 2008, and previously worked for the New York Post and the Brooklyn Paper.