After a settlement reached on Monday between the operator of South Portland’s Howard Johnson hotel and around 60 migrant families, the hotel will give those families an additional month to find another place to live before they are evicted.
But the hotel may still face fines from the city of South Portland.
South Portland Communications Officer Shara Dee said that there was an executive session Tuesday evening between state representatives and the City Council to discuss options for the asylum seekers after the June 30 deadline the city established in April.
Dee said that she understood that the extension settlement was reached between attorneys for the migrants and the hotel owner, and did not involve the city, meaning that the hotel owner could still face fines if the asylum seekers aren’t evicted by June 30.
“The City of South Portland was not involved in the eviction cases at Howard Johnson hotel,” Dee said in a statement Wednesday.
“While we understand a July 31 date may have been settled upon in court, there has been no communication with the City about the matter, nor a request from the hotel owner to waive fines this hotel (and other hotels) face if they do not return to legal operations by June 30,” she said.
That suggests South Portland is still prepared to levy a stiff fine against the hotel operator — regardless of what the court said — should he adhere to the settlement agreement rather than the date set by the city back two months ago.
South Portland initially set a June 30 deadline so that school-age migrants could finish the school year.
On that date, the city will begin a new enforcing a new ordinance designed to prevent lodging establishments from renting to migrant populations or populations whose rent will be paid from government sources.
If the city does not agree to waive the fines, the Howard Johnson hotel will face penalties for abiding by the court agreement.
South Portland’s hotels and motels first began hosting asylum seeker families in early 2020 at the start of the government lockdowns amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the following months and years, with tourism down, it made financial sense for the hotels to accept asylum seekers: no vacancy and Uncle Sam picking up the tab.
But now, taxpayer funding to support housing for unemployed migrants is running out, and tourism season is picking back up. That means hotel operators are looking to get back to business as usual or lose money renting to the unhoused.
In April, South Portland announced the implementation of two new ordinances; one governing future homeless shelters in the city, the other prohibiting lodging establishments from operating like homeless shelters.
After the new rules were announced, a wave of migrants flowed out of several of the hotels and into a newly opened shelter in Portland.
However, around 60 migrant families moved from the Days Inn and Comfort Inn in South Portland to the Howard Johnson hotel.
Suresh Gali, owner of the Howard Johnson hotel, issued a statement through his attorneys saying that the settlement will allow the hotel to work with the state, the city, and local housing advocates to “ensure a more permanent solution or a safe transition of our guests,” according to Maine Public.
The city said this was a measure that would spare South Portland residents a 6 to 20 percent (or more) property tax increased that would come as a result of increased General Assistance costs to fund the hotels.
South Portland officials have also expressed concerns for years about the cost of providing police, medical, and emergency services at the hotels. In the April 10 press release, a city spokesperson detailed the costs of accommodating the migrant populations versus implementing the new ordinance:
Calls for service for public safety personnel skyrocketed at hotels hosting unhoused clients, increasing from 766 per year on average pre-pandemic (2017-19), to 1,672 in 2020 (118%), 2,730 in 2021 (256%), and 1,954 in 2022 (155%). In the first three months of 2023, the monthly call average is up 61% over pre-pandemic levels. (These numbers do not include calls to residences or businesses in the vicinity of the hotels that are related to hotel clients). The vast majority of these calls were to provide services to domestic unhoused clients, some of whom have significant mental health needs. These numbers are expected to decline significantly after June 30 and reduce the strain placed on the City’s Police and Fire/EMS personnel.
The hotels’ return to legal operations also spares South Portland residents a 6% to 20% (or more) property tax increase that would have resulted from increased General Assistance (GA) costs to the City when state and federal funding for hotel stays run out over the next month. While South Portland will continue to provide GA to those who qualify and secure legal housing within our community, the City will not provide GA funding for new stays at lodging establishments, as it would be contributing to a prohibited activity. Although the City anticipates spending less next fiscal year (July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024) on GA than it will this year, the GA budget is still up 244% over fiscal year 2022 and 407% over fiscal year 2019. In short, the City remains committed to assisting those in need.
In addition, this past year the City of South Portland allocated $2.7 million of its ARPA funds to seven different entities for programs that help address homelessness and issues related to homelessness. Those funded include the Opportunity Alliance ($814,000), Preble Street ($500,000), Greater Portland Health ($288,000), Boys & Girls Club of Southern Maine ($369,000), the City of Portland ($229,000), and Greater Portland Family Promise ($200,000). It also included $300,000 allocated toward South Portland’s own Affordable Housing Fund.
In the same press release, the city announced an ordinance to allow the establishment of homeless shelters in the city to function as more long-term solutions.
“For the first time there is a pathway to creating safe, legal homeless shelters in South Portland,” said City Manager Scott Morelli.
“The need for this is clear, and we look forward to working with entities that may be interested in establishing a shelter in the City,” he said.