Sep. 29—SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council has pushed talks about establishing a rent stabilization ordinance to January, raising fears among tenants and housing advocates that interest in protecting residents most vulnerable to rent hikes is flagging.
The council is expected to renew a 180-day emergency rent cap and eviction moratorium that's set to run out at the end of November. That means landlords who own more than 10 units face an additional six months when they won't be able to raise rents more than 10 percent annually. And the council is expected to tack on language to prevent landlords from collecting back rent or fees when the rent cap eventually ends.
That's all good news for Cheryl Harkins and other tenants of Redbank Village Apartments, a 500-unit complex off Westbrook Street where a new out-of-state owner imposed rent increases as high as 35 percent last spring, triggering the council's emergency response.
Harkins has lived in Redbank Village for eight years and was notified recently that her rent soon will increase $171, or 10 percent, from $1,598 to $1,769 per month, not including utilities. She worries that the council's commitment to helping renters like her is losing steam.
"If rents go up more than 10 percent, a lot of people will wind up in eviction court and homeless," she said.
Councilors also plan to increase the advance notice landlords must give tenants before raising rent from 75 to 90 days, and the time tenants have to respond from 30 to 45 days. The votes on extending the rent cap and the notification periods are expected to happen in late October.
But the council decided Tuesday night, during its third workshop on a rent stabilization proposal, to postpone further deliberation until Jan. 10. By then, the council will have two new members and may no longer have the votes to approve more comprehensive rent controls.
"If this City Council punts rent stabilization to the next City Council, then it likely will be doomed to fail," said state Rep. Chris Kessler, D-South Portland, who has been working with Redbank tenants and other residents facing rent increases.
Two at-large council seats are up for election Nov. 8, including one vacant position and one held by Sue Henderson, who supports rent stabilization but isn't seeking re-election. Among the five other sitting councilors, two have indicated they oppose rent control. Four candidates are running for the two open seats. Their positions weren't known Wednesday.
Kessler also questioned the council's plan to renew the rent cap only on landlords with more than 10 units, saying it's "relatively useless in protecting the vast majority of tenants" in a city where many landlords own fewer than 11 units.
Councilors say interest in protecting renters hasn't waned, but those who support rent stabilization believe further deliberation is necessary. Those who don't support it agree.
"I appreciate the council deliberating on this, even though I don't support rent control because I think there are too many unintended consequences," Councilor Misha Pride said.
Asked to name the biggest problems attributed to rent control, Pride said it discourages rental housing development, increases condo conversions and encourages landlords to raise rents to the maximum each year.
But he remains committed to addressing the housing crisis and supports the city's efforts to encourage housing development of all kinds, allow accessory dwelling units and conform to new state regulations that also aim to promote home construction.
Councilor Linda Cohen also opposes rent control.
"I have never been in favor of rent control and I'm probably not going to support it this time," she said. "Rent control doesn't make the problem go away and there are a lot of good landlords. I've always believed we need to increase supply, and we've already pledged to do that."
Under the proposed rent stabilization ordinance, landlords could increase rents once each year at a rate up to 7 percent, plus inflation. The ordinance would include exemptions for rents at or below federal fair market rates; apartments less than 16 years old; landlords with fewer than 11 apartments; as well as certain nonprofits, care facilities, schools, single-room occupancies and accessory dwelling units.
Councilor Kate Lewis said she believes rent stabilization requires further discussion "to avoid creating a bigger problem. It's not a case of waning interest."
Henderson, the outgoing at-large councilor, agrees that there can be down sides to rent stabilization, but she says making it a temporary measure, enacted for only five years, "would avoid some of the worst unintended consequences."
Mayor Deqa Dhalac and Councilor Jocelyn Leighton didn't respond to calls requesting interviews about the rent stabilization proposal.
The council voted 6-0 last June to approve the rent cap and eviction moratorium as emergency measures to prevent Redbank tenants from becoming homeless in a hot real estate market and to keep other landlords from imposing similar increases.
JRK Property Holdings of Los Angeles had recently purchased Redbank, started raising rents as much as $598 per month and moved to evict dozens of tenants. Some tenants receive rent subsidies through the South Portland Housing Authority and other agencies.
A call to Redbank's office requesting an interview went unanswered Wednesday.