Eight candidates for three vacant city council seats in Portland. [Alphabetical L to R, top then bottom: Travis Curran, Jon Hinck, Brandon Mazer, Sarah Michniewicz, Victoria Pelletier, Roberto Rodriguez, Stuart Tisdale, Jr. and Anna Trevorrow.] Credit: BDN composite

PORTLAND, Maine — Three council seats are up for grabs in Portland this election season. None of them include candidates seeking reelection, ensuring new faces for one at-large seat and two districts repping some of the city’s most rapidly transforming neighborhoods.

Most candidates in liberal Portland are Democrats. The difference often boils down to what shade. Six of eight running are on team blue, the exceptions being Stuart Tisdale, Jr., the lone Republican running for an at-large seat, and District 1 hopeful Anna Trevorrow is a Green.

November’s results could push the local government toward an emerging progressive wing, which won key victories in recent elections. But no candidate will be taken seriously in Portland without a plan to address the housing shortage and rising unaffordability, a major concern well before it was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Here’s what they say about it.

At-Large Race (4 candidates)

Is gentrification a problem in Portland? Everyone says yes, but each offers a different solution.

All candidates want to build affordable housing, citing off-peninsula corridors like Brighton, Washington and outer Forest avenues as areas ripe for high-density zoning.

Travis Curran, a 35-year-old server and retail manager at Maine Craft Distilling, watched his working-class Munjoy Hill neighborhood “be completely priced out and replaced by luxury development.”

He wants fewer areas zoned for single-family units in favor of multi-family, mixed-use and other apartments. He supports owner-occupied short-term rentals, recognizing many seniors count on income from renting out an extra room in their home, but wants higher fines and stricter enforcement for non-owner occupied rentals, including illegal ones operating above the cap.

“We shouldn’t have entire apartment buildings full of short-term rentals for tourists while our workers struggle to find housing,” he said.

Brandon Mazer, a 35-year-old lawyer who chairs the city’s planning board, said “well-planned zoning” and allowing taller, denser buildings when appropriate is the solution to “staving off fast-paced gentrification.” The city should keep offering city-owned land for affordable housing, he said, noting an ongoing zoning ordinance revamp. He also wants more family housing.

“We have a number of studio and one-bedroom apartments being built, but we are seeing only very little built for families,” Mazer said.

To Roberto Rodriguez, a 42-year-old member and former Chair of the Portland School Board who owns an urban farming business, the issue is a supply-and-demand problem. He stressed the importance of reforming land-use policies to allow for multi-family zoning, and promotes “anti-displacement policies” that ensure wealthy new arrivals do not have an advantage over current residents.

“Historically we’ve not taken advantage of opportunities to maximize parcels or lots where development can happen,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve not created density where density could be provided, and we’ve not eliminated some of the barriers to density,” like reducing parking requirements and changing set-back distance requirements.

Gentrification is a problem for Stuart Tisdale, Jr., a 68-year-old lawyer and retired history and government teacher at Cheverus High School, but it also “feels like an inevitability.” He cites the recent surge in out-of-state home purchasers, demand for renovations and new construction, and the tendency of national food and lifestyle magazines to name-drop the city.

Tisdale wants to adjust the definition of affordable housing upward to include moderate-income people, increase fees on short-term rentals, and further limit non-owner occupied rentals below its current cap of 400. Otherwise, he cautions against overregulation, and wants to ensure neighborhoods “maintain a strong voice in how they will be shaped.”

“Portland is a small city of 66,000,” Tisdale said. “We are not a mini-nation state.”

To varying degrees, all candidates see rising property taxes reducing affordability. Delayed a year because of the pandemic, the recent real estate revaluation, the city’s first in nearly 20 years, came into play, resulting in sudden increases (and some decreases) for property tax bills this year.

Everyone says revaluations should happen more often. Curran suggested vacancy fees for empty condos. He and Mazer want to lobby the state for a local-option sales tax for hotels. Tisdale voiced support for instituting a local version of California’s Proposition 13, a Republican tax policy capping taxes at a property’s assessed value at the time it was purchased and limiting upwards reassessments as long as it doesn’t change hands.

District 1 (2 candidates)

Portland’s District 1 race, including Bayside, Munjoy Hill and the offshore islands, features a battle between Sarah Michniewicz, a 50-year-old seamstress and president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, and Trevorrow, a 39-year-old paralegal with eight years experience on the Portland School Board and one on the charter commission.

Michniewicz thinks “for many people, yes, gentrification is a problem,” but it’s also “important to distinguish between gentrification and correcting decades of disinvestment and ‘slum clearing.’” She wants to enforce the cap on short-term rentals, rehabilitate existing housing stock, incentivize middle-income and affordable housing and strengthen the housing trust fund.

A vocal critic of Bayside’s Preble Street Resource Center, Michniewicz advocates for greater regional and state involvement in addressing homelessness and affordable housing shortages.

“People who work in Portland should be able to live here, and those who raise families should be able to keep their housing and age in place, but rising property taxes and a lack of affordable housing is making that harder,” she said.

Trevorrow favors a diverse slate of programs, including strengthening inclusionary zoning, direct assistance programs, incentives for income-restricted housing projects and limiting short-term rentals.  

“City planning should be geared toward socioeconomic diversity,” Trevorrow said. To combat the rapid pace of gentrification, the city should start with a vision of Portland that is “accessible to the working class and then work on a comprehensive approach to reach that goal.”

Trevorrow hears a “strong sentiment” that too many tax breaks are given to developers, but says she understands that projects must be profitable for developers to take interest.

District 2 (2 candidates)

Jon Hinck, a 67-year-old lawyer who served six years in the Maine Legislature and three on the City Council, cited the transformation of Munjoy Hill as an example that gentrification is a problem. The city can ease those impacts by putting public housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, offering housing choice voucher programs or a low-income housing tax credit, he said.

Portland should also make it easier for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units, like tiny houses, and put more affordable housing on the market for individuals or families who make as little as 30 percent of the area median income, he said.

An environmentalist, Hinck wants to add solar capacity to city and private buildings, invest in renewable energy projects and retrofit homes to be more efficient and less expensive to heat.

“I would respond to the challenge presented by those who are unsheltered and residents over-burdened by housing costs by treating housing as a human right,” he said, adding that the homeownership gap between white and nonwhite residents widens with gentrification.

Victoria Pelletier, 33, has extensive experience in planning and public policy, working as a racial equity and economic development with Greater Portland Council of Governments, and sitting on boards with Maine Black Community Development and the nonprofit In Her Presence.

“I look forward to redefining the word ‘affordable’ and [pushing] to end exclusionary zoning to make room for more multi-family units and low-income housing, she said.

City leaders should prioritize economic sustainability, she said, supporting live/work incentive programs, educational opportunities, walkability programs, workforce housing and alternative forms of clean-energy transportation. She wants to ban non-owner occupied Airbnbs and prohibit “inequitable developments” of large-scale luxury condos.

“Portland at times feels like a blank slate for unaffordable property development that will continue to displace Portlanders, both young and old, and price us out of the neighborhoods we’ve lived in for decades,” Pelletier said.