Portland residents will have the opportunity to vote Tuesday on a referendum, Question A, that would amend the city’s current rent control ordinance to eliminate a 5 percent cap on how much landlords are allowed to increase rent when a unit turns over.
Portland’s rent control ordinances were implemented through a ballot initiative organized by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in 2020, and later modified in 2022.
Landlords are currently allowed to increase rent on their tenants annually by 70 percent of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to account for inflation, but cannot increase rent by over 10 percent per year without going before the Portland rent control board.
A “yes” on Question A would allow Portland’s landlords to establish a new base rent—the amount off of which the percentage-capped increases are based—for their unit at the time of a new tenancy, but only when the prior tenant left the unit voluntarily.
Opposition to Question A, such as from the Maine DSA, claim that removing the 5 percent cap will result in landlords”rent-gouging” — or increasing the rent as much as they want on every unit turnover, making it harder for working class people and families to rent newly available units.
Supporters of Question A, which is being put before voters by the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, say that the current increase cap forces landlords to raise rents annually rather than wait until their tenant moves out.
The Committee to Improve Rent Control, one of the groups fundraising to back the referendum, claim if Question A prevails it would reduce the incentive for landlords to raise the rent on their current tenants, incentivize them to keep long-term renters, recoup the costs of renovations, and allow them to keep below-market rates for current tenants.
Why some small landlords in Portland support Question A
Three small landlords in Portland told the Maine Wire that a “yes” win on Question A would benefit both them and their tenants.
“I have had friendly relationships with all my tenants over the years, now I feel like I am in the rent control business,” said Bobbi Cope, a small landlord who has been working in Portland for almost 50 years.
“Before rent control I may have had a tenant for 20 years, never raised the rent,” she said. “When that tenant moved out, that’s when I made the adjustment to the rent.”
Cope explained that the rent control ordinance forces small landlords to decide between keeping their units below market value indefinitely, or to raise rent on current tenants, which she explained many small landlords are reluctant to do.
“My husband and I have owned buildings for many years, and part of our retirement plan would have been from the income from these buildings,” she said. “Now, with rent control, if I live long enough to see market rate it’ll be a miracle.”
Cope added that landlords are having to bear the cost of mortgage payments, insurance, cleaning, maintenance, snow removal, lawn care and more, but they are unable to adjust rent proportionally.
“None of those prices are going down, where are the controls on all of those things?” she said.
Rudina Gribizis, another small landlord operating with her husband in Portland, voiced similar concerns as Cope.
“We’ve had tenants that we’ve had forever, we haven’t increased their rent until this happened. Even now we just feel so bad,” Gribizis said.
Gribizis explained that she views the removal of the 5 percent cap as a win-win for landlords and tenants.
“For [tenants] it’s good because we don’t have to increase the rent the 5 percent every year,” she said. “If we have a really good tenant, we can basically just leave the rent whatever it is and when they move out voluntarily we can increase it.”
The current rent control ordinance, in Gribizis’ view, is destroying Portland’s small landlords and driving them out of the city, making the housing crisis worse.
“Most of us that live in Portland and have property here, this is basically our living. And what you’re doing is you’re destroying the small landlords,” she said.
Gribizis grew up in communist Albania, and remembers when her family’s property was seized by the state.
“So you come to the United States, and now here you have the DSA trying to basically put the same thing, like you’re not supposed to have any property,” Gribizis said. “Is that what we’re aspiring to do? To give away our property again to communism?”
The Democratic Socialists of America say in their political platform that their goal is to create an “insurgent tenant movement” and to decommodify housing and land.
They say that their plan is to cancel rent and close eviction courts, force landlords out of the market, and use “state action to acquire private property” and transform it into public “democratically controlled housing.”
Gribizis urged voters to vote “yes” on Question A. In her view, it keeps basically everything that the tenants have won in terms of rent control, but allows landlords the ability to turnover their units and bring them back up to market value when someone moves out.
Alan Levi, a 69-year-old landlord in Portland who got into the business just seven years ago, says the DSA has been involved in a sort of “culture war” against the Rental Housing Alliance and landlords in general.
“We, the landlords, have basically been character assassinated over the last two previous votes and including this one,” Levi said. “We’re being branded as gouging, parasitic, heinous—the words are quite inflammatory.”
“The problem with rent control is the ordinance is a one size fits all, and I am not the person that they think I am,” he said.
“I happen to sit on the board of a nonprofit, I visit seniors, half of my tenants are either first-time renters because they’re asylum seekers, or they have General Assistance or a Section 8 voucher,” he said.
“I’ve been very good at taking marginalized communities into my buildings, but I’m painted the opposite way in the press,” Levi said. “I run it as a business too, but as a business with a heart.”
Because of the rent control ordinance, landlords are being encouraged to raise rent on their long standing tenants, he said.
Levi, a self-described liberal, also said that the Maine DSA’s rent control ordinance is the first step toward government ownership and redistribution of property.
“That’s part of the architecture of the Maine DSA, is our property should be theirs, or it should be the government’s,” he said. “I think by and large the voting public don’t understand that one day they’re coming after their property too.”