This article was first published in Shelterforce. To read more about affordable housing and housing justice, visit Shelterforce.org.
When voters in St. Paul, Minnesota, approved rent stabilization in 2021, it garnered national attention, not least for the measure’s notably low 3 percent cap on rent hikes. Rent stabilization efforts are underway now in at least six U.S. cities and states, including Boston, where advocates and the city’s new mayor face a steep uphill climb.
Flying lower on the radar is a rent control ordinance that passed in Portland, Maine, a year before St. Paul’s measure did. In November 2020, 57 percent of voters in the city of 70,000 said yes to the proposed law, which instituted an initial rent freeze under which base rents established as of Jan. 1, 2022, could be no higher than in June 2020, and after that date limits rent increases to no more than 10 percent and no more often than once per year.
The successful campaign, led by the Maine Democratic Socialists of America (Maine DSA), came three years after an earlier attempt to pass rent control failed.
Rent Control Groundwork Laid in 2017
Rents in Portland had jumped 40 percent in the five years leading up to 2015, while median renter income fell. The city has long housed a solid core of working-class residents such as laborers and restaurant and retail workers, but its growing reputation as an appealing coastal city and a great foodie town (Bon Appétit named it “America’s Foodiest Small Town” in 2009) helped draw more affluent tourists and new residents, creating strong demand for short-term vacation rentals and an ever-tighter housing supply.
“There was an enormous rental crisis,” says Jack O’Brien, who was active in Fair Rent Portland, a grassroots group that formed in 2017 and tried to put the brakes on rent hikes with a rent stabilization referendum. “Airbnb came in and we lost 400 units—about 3 percent of the market. We had a rent spike. Long-term residents were pushed out. And there was very little tenant organizing at that time.”
The 2017 measure was defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin. The inexperienced activists were heavily outgunned in fundraising and media presence by an opposing “Say No to Rent Control” effort. In addition, it was an off-election year, which O’Brien notes tends to draw low turnout with a high proportion of homeowning voters.
“Tactically, that was a mistake,” O’Brien says of the timing. “But [the campaign] set us up well for the future.”
The 2020 Campaign
In 2020, the political climate was far more ripe for radical change, says Buddy Moore, a member of Maine DSA and co-chair of its political education program.
“With COVID, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Trump up for reelection—there was a lot of political energy. People were ready to act to bring about economic and racial justice, to bring more power back into the hands of working-class folks,” Moore says.
He describes a unique and uneasy mix in Portland, the hub of the purple state’s more liberal southern part.
“Portland is a place that fancies itself a foodie paradise, but the people who work here can’t afford to live here,” Moore says. “The city is considered ‘liberal and livable,’ but there’s a dynamic where working-class people who may be more left-wing than the liberal ruling class may not have a mouthpiece. We have radical organizations here that bring a real radical left-wing aspect to our politics.”
Maine DSA launched the People First Portland movement in 2020 to draft ordinances for a slate of progressive reforms. They created five referendums covering rent control, fair wages, limits to facial recognition surveillance, a local Green New Deal, and restrictions on short-term rentals like Airbnb.
People First Portland’s membership broadened and expanded over the summer, gaining lawyer partners and endorsements from groups such as Maine ACLU and Black Power Portland.
Pushing for multiple causes was one of the campaign’s success factors, says O’Brien, who was involved in this campaign as well, coordinating the rent control strand. The varied referendums helped to draw support from not only tenants, but also labor groups that stood to benefit from the green new deal and the minimum wage increase, and others with environmental and civil liberties concerns.
“The idea was, let’s do a bunch of referenda—a vision of how the city could be. What could be done in city government on issues affecting many types of residents?” says O’Brien. “It was a good way to access Portlanders we hadn’t reached before.”
Organizers went forth with door-knocking and flyering, and they also launched a significant social media effort.
“We had a great social media campaign,” says O’Brien. “We had a ‘troll patrol,’ where media-savvy people would interact with people who made comments and explain the issues. We kept highlighting how pro-business the city council was and how they weren’t doing anything about the homeless, even with hundreds of people visible on the streets.”
The campaign heated up, and when local homelessness activists held a camp-in with tents outside city hall, DSA members were on hand providing food and water and phone charging. The aim was to highlight how the city was not doing enough, while organizations like DSA were responding to real needs in real time.
“An incredible sense of solidarity grew out of that,” says O’Brien. “Other organizing groups came into the fold.”
When it came to gathering signatures, COVID restrictions prohibited the sorts of large events where organizers would typically show up with clipboards. But they were able to make inroads at Black Lives Matter protests, and an alternative strategy—assigning 30 people to get 25 signatures each from their close friends and connections—worked surprisingly well.
“That was a real boon,” O’Brien says of the small-group targeted outreach. “It seeded some very dense conversations, and people recruited volunteers in the process.”
A Success, ‘Not a Panacea’
On Election Day 2020, all the measures except the short-term rental restrictions passed. The rent control measure’s 57 percent support stunned even the organizers.
“We couldn’t believe it. We won even in districts we thought we’d lose. Many were blowouts. It was genuinely difficult to get our minds around it,” O’Brien says.
Besides the 18-month rent freeze and 10 percent cap, the new law requires that landlords provide renters with a 75-day notice before a rent increase, and a 90-day notice before a no-fault eviction; it also prohibits discrimination based on how rent is funded, such as with a housing subsidy; and requires landlords to provide the city’s Rental Housing Rights document to all tenants. The ordinance established a new Rent Board to hear tenant complaints, provide mediation for tenant-landlord disputes, and consider landlord requests to raise rents for reasons not covered by the ordinance. As is the case with most rent control laws, owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units are exempt.
Within the 10 percent cap, landlords can raise rents only for certain reasons: A 5 percent increase is allowed when a unit turns over to a new tenant; and increases in local property taxes or the regional consumer price index (CPI) can be passed along. For any other rent increases, such as property renovations, landlords must seek Rent Board approval.
When crafting the ordinance, organizers saw 10 percent as an upper cap—higher than they would have liked, but necessary to strike a balance with landlord needs. They expected rent increases to effectively be closer to 2 or 3 percent. But since the measure passed, inflation (and thus CPI) spiked and Portland instituted a property tax increase—so landlords have been able to impose the full 10 percent increase.
Even so, Moore believes the rent control measure will help steady the city’s rental market and can have far-reaching positive effects.
“We recognize that rent stabilization is one piece of the puzzle. It’s not a panacea. But it slows down the process of inflating rents more and more each year,” he says. “Its success marked a significant transfer of power, and hopefully a transfer of wealth, from the liberal capitalized class to the workers.”
Next Up: Continued Tweaking
People First Portland organizers are still working to improve the ordinance. The ability to raise rents on vacant units, for instance, incentivizes some landlords to evict tenants.
“We’ve seen comrades and friends removed from their homes so a landlord can make a little extra money,” Moore says. “We’re trying to address this in a new ballot question this November, restricting that increase to voluntary move-outs only.”
O’Brien notes promising signs of a snowball effect: Biddeford, Maine, and other towns have started conversations about rent stabilization, and when a corporate landlord bought a building in the nearby city of South Portland this year and announced dramatic rent increases, the city council quickly passed a six-month rent cap.
“It’s spreading,” he says. “In South Portland, it wasn’t activists pushing it—the council could see the need. We could see how the conversation has evolved.”
Editor’s note: The ballot questions in Portland met with mixed success. Question C, which would institute a 90-day notice for lease termination (whether the tenant had a lease or not), set a limit on security deposits, and prohibit application fees and other fees, passed with 54 percent of the vote. Two ballot proposals that would have regulated short-term rentals both failed, with 55 percent of Portland residents voting no.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance writer covering urban issues and policy. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Guardian Cities and the Bay State Banner. See her work at sandralarsononline.com.
Add to the Discussion
Next City sustaining members can comment on our stories. Keep the discussion going! Join our community of engaged members by donating today.
Already a sustaining member? Login here.