Redbank Village in South Portland. | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 6, 2023
Each month, Jon Desantis, who rents an apartment at Redbank Village in South Portland, has become accustomed to finding a letter from JRK Property Holdings taped to his door announcing a new fine or fee.
“I call them love letters,” he said. “They like leaving love letters on your door. The most recent one said that if you don’t shovel within 12 hours, we’re going to come do it for you and it’ll be 150 bucks.”
Desantis, 32, and his young family of four are on the frontlines of Maine’s housing crisis and are at risk of leaving the state. They pay $1,855 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. When he signed his lease, he thought he’d be paying for rent, heat, electricity and internet. But when his first month’s bill arrived, it included monthly fees for the family’s two dogs, plus water, sewer, trash, pest removal and $61 a month for common area maintenance.
“That comes to $2,175 a month when you add up all their fees,” he said, adding that housing claims most of his paycheck that he earns as a chemist for an engineering firm and through a weekend job at Home Depot.
Desantis said he has also been threatened with fines for letting the grass grow higher than four inches and leaving his childrens’ toys in the yard, as well as for failing to buy a carpet that covered most of the floor.
Fees as a business model
Built as workforce housing in the 1940s by the federal government, the neighborhood of modest duplexes known as Redbank Village has traded hands between private investors over the years, most recently being acquired by JRK Property Holdings of Los Angeles in late 2021.
As Beacon previously reported, the firm has been accused of several practices that large rental companies often use to maximize their profits, including cutting corners on maintenance, justifying rent hikes with random upgrades, displacing long-term tenants through evictions, and issuing predatory fees.
“I feel like for what I pay, I should be living in the Taj Mahal,” said Desantis, who recently moved to Maine from Delaware. He was shocked by the state’s housing costs. He found that Redbank was one of the few places he could afford. “They don’t tell you that. It’s not in the brochure when they say ‘come move to Maine.’”
When food and electricity prices began rising last year, Desantis and his partner fell behind on payments and their two cars were repossessed. His credit score plummeted and he walked to work for months.
“Now, even if I wanted to go somewhere cheaper, I can’t,” he said.
Sandy Vicker, 61, also has trouble making the rent at Redbank and has been routinely threatened with eviction. When she moved in four years ago she paid $1,400, but last year JRK attempted to raise her rent to $2,100. It was capped at $1,700, however, after the South Portland City Council stepped in.
Vicker, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, has also been hounded by surprise fees.
“They recently sent a letter out to everybody for a noncompliance fee of $60 a month if you don’t send a copy of your renter’s insurance policy to a separate company JRK just created in 2023,” she said.
“I wish they would come and talk to some of these people at Redbank. We live paycheck to paycheck,” Vicker said. “The corporations that buy these places, they don’t know or interact with the people. They’re all out-of-staters. You know, big corporate people.”
Organizing Redbank tenants
JRK is a large corporate landlord with a portfolio of over 80,000 units across 30 states. The company did not respond to a request for comment on the accusation of predatory fees.
During the past decade, corporate entities like JRK and private equity-backed firms have “stormed into the multifamily apartment market, snapping up rentals by the thousands and becoming major landlords in American cities,” ProPublica reported last year.
Recognizing that these investors have flooded the housing market solely in search of profits, local groups such as Housing Justice Maine — a coalition that includes the Maine Immigrant Housing Coalition, Raise-Op Housing Cooperative, Dignity First, Maine Equal Justice and the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) — are attempting to organize tenants at Redbank to form a base of citizens that can push for tenant protection and resist the spread of corporate landlords across the state.
Vicker and Desantis have both attended meetings with other tenants where they discuss the critical shortage of affordable housing in Maine and learn about potential policy solutions. While tenants are beginning to get organized, there also appears to be a growing recognition of the need for public regulation of the private rental market.
Last month, South Portland joined Portland as the only municipalities in Maine that regulate rent. The South Portland City Council approved a rent control ordinance that will cap annual rent increases at 10% for the next seven years. The ordinance received significant pushback from landlords and business lobbyists.
The Bangor City Council also last month unanimously passed an ordinance that will require a landlord to give their renters 60-days notice if they plan to increase rent. Bangor officials also did away with application fees and placed a $75 cap on screening fees.
Similar proposals to ban application fees and require 90-days’ notice for rent increases are presently being considered in the Maine State Legislature.
Officials in Waterville and Bangor as well as Maine legislators are considering creating landlord registries to centralize information about the property owners and business interests that control the rental market in Maine. Housing organizers believe such a registry could serve as the basis for future regulation.
South Portland Rep. Chris Kessler, a Democrat, has also introduced legislation to tamp down on surprise fees. His bill would limit the amount of fees a renter could be required to pay upon signing a lease to no more than the first month’s rent, a security deposit and the cost of new locks and keys.
While Vicker and Desantis welcome any attempts to regulate predatory fees in Maine, they also insist that more sweeping efforts that directly address the soaring cost of housing are desperately and immediately needed.
Forty percent of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, as Beacon previously reported, while homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.
The lack of affordable housing drives a vicious cycle in Maine. Young workers like Desantis can’t afford to live in a state already hobbled by an aging and declining workforce. Without a skilled workforce, even if lawmakers secure significant funding, new affordable housing can’t be built at the pace that the housing crisis requires.
“Everybody deserves a place to live,” Vickers said. “When all your paycheck goes to rent, how are young people going to stay here, or how are seniors going to survive? For me, it’s always a matter of choosing between rent, bills or medicine. Which one am I going to choose this month?”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.