Advocates rally outside the State House for affordable housing | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April 7, 2023
In response to sky-high prices combined with a dearth of affordable units, advocates introduced a slate of housing justice bills this legislative season, the combined force of which they hope will begin to address the state’s affordable housing crisis that has put many Maine renters in an expensive bind.
Proponents say the measures are necessary to protect tenants and ensure more Mainers have access to safe, stable housing. However, the proposals unleashed a deluge of opposition from landlords and real estate interests, who flooded public hearings with incendiary language about tenants and often hyperbolic statements about the impact of the bills.
“Taken together, along with other proposed laws [that] may be coming, this is a legislative onslaught,” said Scott Lawliss of Mt. Desert Island, who owns apartment buildings in Bangor, Brewer and Winterport.
In the face of opposition from landlords and real estate interests, the Democratic-led Judiciary Committee on Wednesday opted to pass a handful of the bills, but approved versions of the measures that were — in some cases — significantly scaled back.
The committee also voted not to approve several measures designed to give more power to tenants in a rental market currently pitched steeply toward landlords. Those bills would have decreased discrimination against tenants with an eviction filing on their record and extended the notice required to terminate an at-will tenancy.
Retaliatory evictions bill
In a work session Wednesday, those present on the committee unanimously voted to pass an amended version of LD 45, a bill to prevent retaliatory evictions. That legislation was sponsored by Sen. Anne Carney (D-Cumberland), who pointed to the power landlords hold to institute unfair rent increases as one reason for the measure.
During an earlier public hearing on the bill, real estate owners decried the legislation.
One landlord, Randall Dean of Madison, stated that, “Today, the perpetual adolescence, immaturity and disrespect some tenants exhibit is beyond explanation.” Edward Sardinha of Enfield Partners LLC added that the bill was unconstitutional and implied that the measure would serve to “oppress landowners” if passed.
Along with such arguments, landlord and real estate industry testimony on LD 45 often featured the same talking points again and again and again, pointing to a coordinated attempt by property owners to kill the legislation.
Carney herself introduced an amendment to LD 45 during Wednesday’s work session. That amendment removed language in the original bill that would have allowed for a presumption that a landlord evicting a tenant who recently complained that a rent increase was illegal under a municipal ordinance was retaliating against that tenant for that complaint. Carney said she removed the language because there are a wide range of municipal ordinances and she felt the provision might introduce uncertainty into the bill.
Carney’s amended bill now essentially provides that there is a presumption — which landlords have the chance to rebut — that an eviction was done in retaliation if within six months of that eviction the tenant asserted their rights in requiring sufficient notice of a rent increase or related to laws prohibiting a rent increase for a unit that isn’t habitable.
The changes to the bill made by Carney prompted Daniel Bernier of the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association to say he was fine with the measure. Bernier was called upon to give his opinion of the bill by Judiciary Committee House Chair Matt Moonen (D-Portland).
Committee votes against several tenant protection bills
Despite passing LD 45 and some other bills, the committee gave “ought-not-to-pass” designations to LD 557 and LD 804.
LD 557, sponsored by Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor), would have barred landlords from asking people about previous evictions or from using a potential tenant’s eviction history as a basis for denial of housing. In testimony supporting the measure, advocates pointed out that a single eviction — regardless of the circumstances — can make it much more difficult for tenants to access housing.
Misunderstandings over the bill and an overall opposition to expanding tenants’ rights was a theme of the opposition to LD 557 during the public hearing.
For example, Timothy Robinson of Portland compared the bill to being forced to quarter soldiers in one’s home.
“I do not want soldiers or past criminals living under my roof, eating my food, and potentially raping my wife,” he wrote. “Please, stay out of my house!”
In an attempt to win support for the bill, Rana introduced an amendment that would have prohibited landlords from discriminating against tenants over an eviction dispute in which the tenant and landlord resolved the conflict, the eviction case was resolved in favor of the tenant, or the eviction was more than three years old.
Even with the amendment, Republicans on the committee largely expressed fundamental opposition to the bill. Committee Democrats also continued to oppose the bill, saying they were sympathetic to Rana’s intent but didn’t feel the measure was ready to move forward. The result was a unanimous vote among Democrats and Republicans present at the work session to likely kill one of the most ambitious tenant protections measures introduced this session.
Prior to Wednesday’s work session, Rana expressed disappointment in the rhetoric landlords used to describe her bill during its public hearing.
“I felt like there wasn’t this inherent trust of people or belief that people just straight up deserve housing,” she said.
Some who testified against the bill — such as Bruce Blackmer of the Greater Bangor Apartment Owners and Managers Association — indeed complained that, “Unfortunately, many tenants feel that they have a right to housing, and the rules do not apply to them.”
Rana said she believes housing is a right, a position shared by the United Nations, which recognizes adequate housing as a component of human rights rather than as a commodity to be bought and sold.
Rana added that passing her bill was the right thing to do because the reasons people are evicted are not typically personal failings, but often boil down to difficult circumstances such as financial issues or mental health problems.
“We need to make sure we address the root causes of the situation rather than punishing people for ending up houseless,” she said.
A majority of the Judiciary Committee also voted against another bill, LD 804, that would have increased the notice to terminate an at-will tenant to 90 days from 30 days.
The measure also spurred large-scale opposition from rental interests. Bernier in testimony against the bill issued a dire warning that if lawmakers passed the measure, they would be “voting to increase homelessness in Maine” because apartment owners would be “far less likely to take a chance on a marginal tenant.”
But Frank D’Alessandro, legal services director for Maine Equal Justice, noted that legislation such as LD 804 and the other tenant protection bills have been successfully implemented in other states.
“We think that these are some common sense protections that have been tried and proven to be effective in other communities and that would work here,” he said.
During the work session on the measure, Carney put forward an amendment that would have required 45 days notice for most landlords to terminate an at-will tenant.
The bill sponsor, Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland), expressed skepticism about the amendment, pushing for the original measure and saying tenants need more time to find adequate housing. A majority of the committee, however, voted against approving the bill. Democratic Reps. Amy Kuhn of Falmouth, Adam Lee of Auburn and Moonen joined Republicans in voting against LD 804.
Before the work session, Kessler criticized arguments against the bill, pointing out that landlords currently have the option to do an eviction with just seven days notice if they can provide proof of cause. However, according to testimony from a landlord group, many use a 30-day eviction notice — also known as a no-cause eviction — instead because they don’t have to prove misbehavior in that situation. Landlords argued that proving cause to win a seven day notice eviction is too high a burden.
“That’s not a good reason,” Kessler said, stating that it’s unfair that landlords are able to avoid having to prove that a tenant has done something wrong by slightly extending the notice period, which he said is still far too little time for many people to find alternative housing.
“We want to keep people off the street,” he added. “We want people who are law-abiding tenants to have the appropriate time that they need to find a new place to live.”
Other tenant rights bills
The committee passed several other tenant rights bills, all of which were subject to amendments that narrowed their scope, including LD 330, a measure to ensure residents facing eviction have legal representation.
Landlords and real estate interests strongly opposed the measure during a public hearing. For example, Justin Giroux, manager of Habitat For ME, claimed that trying to make it more likely that tenants have access to a lawyer when a landlord tries to evict them is “picking sides in the eviction process.”
The original version of LD 330 would have required that a notice informing tenants of the availability of legal representation be provided earlier in the process. The bill also would have extended the minimum time until the beginning of legal action against a tenant in an eviction case to 14 days from 7 days and required that courts announce the availability of legal representation for tenants at an eviction hearing if a lawyer is present and able to represent them.
The updated version of LD 330, which passed 8-1 among those present in the committee, removes the extension of the minimum time before commencement of legal action and also stipulates that a court’s failure to announce the ability for tenants to obtain legal representation on the day of their hearing is not grounds for dismissal of an eviction case.
The Judiciary Committee also adjusted and passed LD 701, designed to provide tenants more notice for rent increases. That bill was also opposed by many landlords during an earlier public hearing, with Giroux claiming that the measure was not needed because rents around the country are beginning to “slow, flatline or decrease depending on which national market you are looking at. This trend is also occurring locally here in Maine.”
Numerous illustrations of Maine’s well-documented affordable housing crisis show that few people have found relief from the high cost of housing, as fair market rents have risen across Maine every year since 2020 and are projected to rise in 2023 once more, according to MaineHousing.
The original version of LD 701, sponsored by Kessler, would have increased the notice period for rent increases to 90 days from 45 days, giving people more time to find stable housing in a difficult market.
The version passed Wednesday by the committee on a 9-3 vote instead requires that a landlord provide 75 days notice for a rent hike that is a 10% or more increase over a 12-month period.
On another bill, LD 691, the committee again amended the measure, narrowing its scope. The original bill, sponsored by Kessler, would have banned tenant application fees that can force residents to pay hundreds of dollars when applying to multiple apartment listings.
Landlords came out in force against the bill, although the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association wrote that, “We have not heard from even one of our members that they feel that using application fees as a source of income is even ethical.”
Nevertheless, the association asked lawmakers to oppose the bill because it claimed online services many landlords use charge those fees and that costs from those fees would end up being folded into rents. However, D’Alessandro noted that some rental application fees charged to tenants are more than the cost of the background check the fee is purportedly meant to pay for, raising the specter of abuse of the practice by landlords.
In passing LD 691 through the committee along party lines, Democrats changed the bill to prohibit application fees but allow landlords to get reimbursement from tenants for the actual cost of background/credit checks if they provide tenants with documentation of those costs. The amended measure would also prevent a landlord from charging a particular tenant for background check-related fees more than once in a 12-month period.
After voting to pass LD 691, the committee unanimously killed two measures, LD 690 and LD 558, that also dealt with rental application fees. That move was in order to prevent redundancy.
The bills considered by the committee still need to be approved by the full House and Senate. In general, a bill that a majority of the committee supports typically has a better chance than a measure a majority of the committee designates “ought-not-to-pass.”
As the legislative session moves forward, D’Alessandro said it’s crucial that lawmakers provide some protections for tenants.
“Housing is a huge issue,” he said. “Without stable housing, it’s hard to have any stability in your life, and all the other things we talk about are made much harder without stable housing: education, food security, health care.”
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.