Jan. 25—Portland's former mayor is being evicted from his downtown apartment for what he claims is retaliation for forming a tenants union and fighting against illegal rent hikes.
Ethan Strimling, the progressive mayor of Maine's largest city from 2015 until 2019, received an Aug. 30, 2021, eviction notice that ordered him out of his apartment on Congress Street by Dec. 1, according to court records. The notice didn't give a reason why.
Believing the move was retaliation for organizing his building into a union that complained about its landlord's code violations, Strimling never left. So on Dec. 15, landlord Geoffrey Rice began the legal process to force him out, court records show.
Landlords can evict people without telling them a reason, but it is illegal to do so for joining a tenants union or complaining about code violations. After his tenants complained, Portland officials found over the summer that Rice had illegally raised the rent in Strimling's building, in violation of its rent control ordinance, according to documents.
Strimling's case could be the first time a member of a tenants union tries to block an eviction by claiming retaliation, starring one of the city's most high-profile advocates for tenant rights. It comes nearly a year after a new law prompted more renters to organize into unions during a pandemic that intensified Portland's housing crunch.
"This is a clear case of retaliation in an attempt to break the Trelawny Tenants Union," said Strimling, who co-writes an opinion column for the Bangor Daily News. "We will take this as far as need be to protect the rights of all tenants to organize and fight for better living conditions."
Rice's attorney, David Chamberlain, didn't immediately respond to two phone calls seeking comment.
As mayor of Portland, Strimling pushed for greater protections for renters squeezed by the city's red-hot housing market and backed a new rent control ordinance that passed by referendum in 2020. The ordinance caps the amount a landlord can annually raise rent. Exceptions to the cap must be approved by a city panel.
As a tenant of the Trelawny Building at 655 Congress St., Strimling co-founded a tenants union at the start of the pandemic to streamline communication between Rice, one of Portland's biggest landlords, and his renters, who feared their ability to keep up with rent amid economic fallout from the virus.
Last June, the union emailed both Rice and Portland officials with concerns that Rice had illegally raised the rent, in violation of a new city ordinance, according to documents provided by Strimling's attorney, Scott Dolan. The union also asked Rice to reverse his decision to evict 10 tenants who were "in good standing," including Strimling, who received a May notice that his lease would not be renewed and he needed to move by July 1.
The city found that Rice had violated city code by raising the rent, didn't give tenants proper paperwork about their rights and failed to register his rental units with the city. Rice was ordered to cancel the rent increases, according to an email from the city, and he refunded tenants any rent he collected under the unlawful increase.
In late August, Strimling received a more formal no-cause eviction notice that gave him 90 days to leave. Strimling has kept up with his rent payments despite staying put, although his payments for December and January were not accepted, Dolan said.
"When this case goes to trial, we expect the judge will find that Mr. Rice is trying to evict Mr. Strimling in unlawful retaliation for his involvement in the Trelawny Tenants' Union and for filing complaints to the City," Dolan said.
The trial is scheduled for Feb. 10 in Portland District Court.