Landlords pour more money into proposed rent control change

May 8—Proponents of a Portland referendum initiative that seeks to eliminate a cap on rent increases when apartments voluntarily turn over are continuing to raise and spend significantly more money than their opponents, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.

The Committee to Improve Rent Control has raised more than $76,000 in cash to date, including $30,200 since April 5, in support of Question A. The initiative would eliminate the 5% cap on rent increases allowed when a tenant moves out voluntarily and allow landlords to reset rents to whatever they want.

"Our polling shows that this simple fix to rent control has broad support from the community because it is better for tenants, housing providers and for Portland," said committee chair Brit Vitalius in a statement.

The Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America's Campaign for a Livable Portland, which was successful in passing a citizen-initiated ordinance on rent control in 2020, meanwhile, has raised $9,350 in cash, including $450 leftover from a previous campaign, to oppose the question.

Leaders said they are undeterred by the fundraising gap as the June 13 election approaches.

"This is pretty much what we would expect," said Tzara Kane, treasurer for the Campaign for a Livable Portland. "The people we are up against have tremendous amounts of financial resources. We run our campaigns mostly based on volunteers and small donations.

"It's inevitable they would be outraising us by some magnitude, but we feel strongly that since we have a volunteer network and some really inspired volunteers, we can make our money go a lot further."

The 5% rent increase currently allowed when an apartment turns over voluntarily is among a handful of additional rent increases landlords can apply per year on top of an annual increase of 70% of the rate of inflation. But the overall rent increase can not exceed 10% per year in units where rent control applies.

Landlords who are advocating for Question A say it's a small fix that will prevent them from raising rents on existing tenants because they will have more leeway to bring units to market rates after a voluntary turnover. The DSA has said the change will only result in bigger rent increases that will keep newly available apartments out of reach of families and the working class.

The Committee to Improve Rent Control has more cash on hand — $13,900 — and has also spent far more — about $62,800, most of which has been with Property Management Services of Poland for signature gathering and campaign services. The group also has a $125,000 unpaid debt to Access Marketing in Denver for campaign marketing.

Most of the committee's donations have come from realtors, landlords and property management companies, including $20,000 from the Maine Association of Realtors and $5,000 each from the Greater Portland Board of Realtors and Maine Commercial Association of Realtors. It also received a $29,000 in-kind donation from the Greater Portland Board of Realtors for a survey.

The Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, which gathered the signatures to put the question on the ballot, has given $15,000.

"People in Portland are exhausted by governance through referendums," said Vitalius, who also leads RHA. "This is the fourth on rent control in six years, so we are not pushing the general public for donations to this important but admittedly technical edit ... to municipal ordinance."

The Campaign for a Livable Portland received a $5,000 donation from the Maine Democratic Socialists of America while the rest of its donations have come from individuals who gave $250 or less. The campaign spent $1,200 on legal services and $990 on stationary, postcards and postage. It has $7,100 in cash on hand.

Kane noted that high fundraising numbers are not necessarily an indicator of success at the polls. Question C, which was put forward by the DSA last November, was approved by voters despite DSA holding a significant fundraising disadvantage going into the election. The question put in place a stricter limit on annual rent increases and banned apartment application fees.