Advocates rally outside the State House for affordable housing | Beacon
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on March 10, 2023
A broad coalition of lawmakers and advocates are pushing for bills that would reform Maine’s housing laws by preventing discrimination against a tenant for a prior eviction and raising notice requirements landlords must give for rent increases — two measures among a slate of legislation to address the state’s affordable housing crisis.
The bills were heard at a public hearing Thursday before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. One of the measures, LD 557, sponsored by Rep. Ambureen Rana (D-Bangor), would bar landlords from asking people about any previous evictions and from using a potential tenant’s eviction history as a basis for denial. The other bill, LD 701, sponsored by Rep. Chris Kessler (D-South Portland), would raise the notice that landlords have to give tenants before a rent increase from 45 days to 90 days. Following Thursday’s hearing, the measures will be voted on by the Judiciary Committee at a later date.
The bills come as Maine remains in the grips of an affordable housing crisis. As Beacon previously reported, 40% of Maine renters are considered cost-burdened by rent, homelessness has increased and there is still a shortage of about 20,000 affordable housing units in the state.
Preventing discrimination based on evictions
Rana’s bill is co-sponsored by a series of other lawmakers, most of them Democrats. The measure received support from a variety of advocates during Thursday’s hearing but was also met with fierce resistance from landlords and industry groups.
In support of the bill, Frank D’Alessandro, legal services director for Maine Equal Justice, told lawmakers that evictions fall hardest on certain types of people. He said women and people of color, along with tenants with children, are disproportionately more likely to be evicted than other groups. By passing LD 557, D’Alessandro said lawmakers can ensure that such individuals are not punished again and again in their housing search for having been evicted.
Meagan Sway, policy director for the ACLU of Maine, also submitted testimony in favor of Rana’s bill. Sway pointed out that the state is in the midst of a surge in evictions, with that number increasing 27% in 2022 over the previous year. LD 557 could help alleviate some of the struggle for people who are evicted, Sway said.
“An eviction filing, regardless of the outcome of the case, follows a renter for years. For many tenants, eviction can have a domino effect of devastating consequences, including job loss, health issues, marital hardship and even homelessness. This bill would help ensure that a history of eviction does not have quite such a devastating effect and does not prevent marginalized populations from securing housing,” Sway said.
Another supporter of the bill, Michael Beck, told lawmakers his story of being evicted as a way to illustrate why LD 557 is so important. Beck said in 2014, he and his family moved to a rental property in Georgia, which had numerous issues, some of which were never addressed by property managers despite frequent requests. Beck said he and his family notified the company of their intent to withhold rent until the issues were resolved, only to be served with an eviction filing. They eventually came to a deal in which Beck and his family were let out of the lease and the eviction case was dropped. However, because the company had filed for eviction, that notice followed Beck and his family around as they tried to look for other housing, making the process much more difficult.
“The outcome of the filing didn’t matter to prospective landlords. We had a recent eviction on our record — that’s all they needed to know,” he said, explaining that his family was denied housing again and again. He said that his case shows eviction filings are subjective and that no two cases are the same.
Unsurprisingly, LD 557 received an array of pushback from landlords and housing industry interests. The Maine Association of Realtors testified against the bill, arguing that eviction histories are a critical data point that serve to “protect the safety of existing tenants” and allow property owners to “safeguard their assets.”
James Ernst, manager of Sherwood Properties, also said screening tenants by looking at eviction data and other factors is “crucial for landlords to find good tenants and maintain good properties.” Ernst also claimed that “tenants who have been evicted are not good people to rent to,” although he acknowledged that most evictions are because of financial reasons.
Increasing notice for rent hikes
The other housing bill before the committee Thursday was Kessler’s measure to double the notice period landlords must provide tenants for rent increases. In his testimony, Kessler noted that rents in Maine have skyrocketed recently, with more than half of Maine renters experiencing price hikes during the past year.
Given the scope of Maine’s housing crisis, Kessler said Mainers deserve time to make significant decisions about their housing in the face of rent increases.
“We know that stable housing is foundational to the health of our citizens,” he said. “The reality on the ground is that with just 45 days, folks … are likely to make a decision that puts them and their children in a worse situation than they were in before. Ninety days is simply the minimum amount of time it takes to sort these things out.”
Cheryl Harkins, an advocate with the group Homeless Voices for Justice, submitted testimony in favor of the measure. Harkins highlighted the challenges posed to tenants and urged lawmakers to provide people with more time to figure out situations such as a rent increase.
“The current notification time of 45 days for a rental increase is not sufficient in this current fiscal atmosphere,” she said. “A time of 90 days will give the tenant the time to shuffle budgets and to find extra employment if need be. The 90-day notice time would allow the tenant to find the extra money necessary to ensure the stability of their home.”
Like Rana’s bill, Kessler’s measure received pushback from many in the housing industry. One such opponent, the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association, said the measure could cost landlords money. The group added that many of the organization’s landlords have said that if Kessler’s bill passes, in order to meet expenses “they will not be willing to negotiate lower move in costs, lower monthly rent (which many currently do to get or keep a good tenant), will spend less on unnecessary improvements, and will increase their consideration to get out of the business by selling and recouping the equity they have built over the years of ownership.”
However, not all property management groups feel that way. Debora Keller of Bath Housing, which owns and operates 175 apartments, submitted testimony in support of the measure.
“We wholeheartedly support LD 701. It is a reasonable and fair step — albeit a small step — to give tenants a chance to plan in the face of a rent increase,” Keller said. “And we see no negative impacts on a landlord. In fact, it allows the landlord to plan ahead as well.”
She said the company consulted with landlords and landlord representatives it works with about the bill and found that they agreed the measure would have “no detrimental impact on landlords.”
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.