31-33 Frederic St., Portland Credit: Google Street View

Representatives of Portland’s top landlord and tenant groups this week expressed interest in the establishment of a new city panel to resolve conflicts rental conflicts, modeled after a similar commission launched in Maryland.

Attorney Regan Sweeney proposed the idea in a recent contributor piece for the Bangor Daily News, writing that such a board has been successful in sorting out disputes between landlords and tenants in Montgomery County, Maryland. One advantage is that it can help resolve conflicts before they end up in the courts, he wrote.

[MORE: Here’s a way to resolve landlord-tenant issues in Portland before they get out of hand]

“I like the whole idea, the whole concept,” Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “Let’s not just always go straight to court, let’s sit down and come up with solutions.”

Talk of a way to improve relations between Portland tenants and landlords has picked up momentum in recent months, after two high profile cases in which multi-unit apartment complexes were cleared out by the owners to make way for renovations and new tenants. In one case, the mass displacement led to a class action lawsuit against a former landlord. The city is also less than two years into a crackdown on landlords for code violations, like faulty wiring and blocked exits, brought about by a deadly fire at a rental house on Noyes Street that claimed the lives of six people.

[MORE: City grapples with tenant rights after ‘unprecedented’ mass displacement]

This comes against the backdrop of an ongoing housing crisis in Portland, where the residential vacancy rates are approaching zero and demand for units has pushed average monthly rents $500 beyond average incomes.

“The rental market is all but completely unregulated; most tenants are afraid of losing permanent housing and with the total lack of low to middle cost housing being built, there are few options available to anyone not making well above the city’s median income levels,” said Tom MacMillan, a leader of the Portland Tenants Union, a group that has formed to advocate for tenants’ rights.

Sweeney said he went before the Maryland commission both as an attorney representing landlords and as a tenant seeking to get his security deposit back. He described how the Montgomery County board worked in his piece:

Each case is assigned an independent investigator who looks into the complaint, meets with the parties, inspects the property when necessary and works as a mediator to come to a solution. If a problem can’t be solved that way, the parties have a hearing before a commission made up of tenants and landlords from the community. The commission then renders a decision that carries the weight of a court order — it can’t be ignored and failure to abide by it can result in fines and penalties.

Either party can appeal a commission decision and take the case to the courts, but  the commission is the first stop for landlord-tenant complaints, which eases the court’s workload. And since the proceedings aren’t in a courtroom, they’re more informal and less intimidating — and attorneys are optional.

MacMillan said the tenants union is open to the idea, but said such a commission shouldn’t replace consideration of a separate city ombudsman to advocate for tenants.

“We are interested in discussing the idea on a city-level, but as usual, whether we would support it or not is in the details. Broadly, we support using the city’s influence to make life easier and more regular for tenants and landlords alike,” he said.

“If a tenant were to take their issue with their landlord to such a commission, the tenant would run the risk of being blacklisted by the increasingly small number of landlords in town and labeled a ‘troublemaker,’” MacMillan continued. “Fundamentally, the owner of the property is given all of the advantages. We want to change this. We do support the funding of a tenant ombudsman by the city of Portland, which is an idea often paired with a tenant-landlord commission as presented by Mr. Sweeney.”

Vitalius said such a commission would be a good way to resolve disputes at a less formal and less expensive level than the court system. He said landlords and tenants must be willing to work together to reach common ground, and a mediation board of sorts would be less adversarial than city-level advocate for just tenants.

“We’re OK calling out other landlords if they’re being unfair, breaking the laws, creating dangerous conditions or just being jerks,” he said. “And we would hope tenants would be the same. It doesn’t have to be in favor or tenants or in favor of landlords, but in favor of those relationships. Look, we’re all in this together. We all want these relationships to work.”

Mayor Ethan Strimling said any establishment of an ombudsman or tenant-landlord commission would need to be recommended by the city’s Housing Committee to the larger City Council for adoption. He said the committee is currently reviewing ways to respond to the city’s housing crisis and tension between landlords and tenants.

“They all want to make sure that it’s balanced and that it’s fair for both sides of a dispute,” Strimling said of a potential commission. “In the conversation between tenants and landlords, tenants are more in need of someone who can tell them what their rights are. … Even if it’s just a hotline where they could ask, ‘Hey, can they raise my rent like this?’ or ‘I have a lease, can they evict me?’ For landlords, I think they’d love to have a panel out there that could resolve disputes, instead of having to go through court.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.