A man crosses the Commercial Street end of Portland Pier in Portland on Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Though 50 short-term rental properties were found to be in violation of city ordinances in 2021, Portland hasn’t yet collected any fines. 

The pandemic has caused a backlog in the courts, delaying the pursuit of short-term rental and building and housing code violations, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

“We have not yet reached the point of issuing summonses for the 2021 short-term rental violations,” Grondin said. The district court did not hear civil disputes until April 12. The city has sent out notices and is “still working with violators to receive compliance” and has otherwise not received decisions on cases that have been filed.

The fees, which go to the city’s Housing Trust Fund that’s used to subsidize affordable housing projects, represent thousands of dollars in penalties. Portland collected $15,200 in short-term rental violation penalty fees from 14 rental owners in 2019. In 2020, it collected $7,700 in penalty fees in 2020 from one owner of multiple units, a year when short-term rentals were prohibited in the early months of the pandemic. With significantly more violations in 2021 — 50 so far — the lack of enforcement isn’t deterring would-be short rental owners from proceeding without proper approvals.

Building and housing code violations have also not been assessed. The city collected $13,700 in these fees in 2019 and $9,200 in 2020, but nothing yet in 2021.

As rents have skyrocketed in Maine’s largest city, the regulation of short-term rentals, popular with vacationers, has been a hotly debated issue. When a landlord converts an apartment unit to a short-term rental, it often removes housing off the market for permanent residents. This is particularly true for nonowner occupied rentals.

The absence of violation fees frames a dynamic that’s troubling for renters in the city. The court system has begun to process filings affecting tenants, such as evictions, which displace them without cause and allow landlords to quickly raise rents. But it is lagging on code and rental violations that hold property owners accountable. 

Landlords generally don’t tell tenants why they are getting no-cause eviction notices, so they typically don’t know if they are being evicted because their unit is getting converted to a short-term rental.

“We do know it is getting harder and harder for tenants to find new units when they are evicted and many are ending up in hotels,” said Katherine McGovern, an attorney at Pine Tree Legal Assistance.

Several city councilors, including newly elected Anna Trevorrow, Victoria Pelletier and Roberto Rodriguez, have discussed strengthening restrictions on nonowner occupied short-term rentals to varying degrees.

Councilor Victoria Pelletier said in October that nonowner occupied rentals should be banned because they “continue to price out Portlanders of all ages.”

There are 223 owner-occupied short-term rental units licensed in the city as of November, and 400 nonowner occupied units. Another 21 are tenant occupied, and 108 island rentals are unregulated. The city has capped the number of nonowner-occupied units available for short-term rental in the city at 400 units. The number of owner-occupied short-term rentals or island rentals are not restricted. Short-term rentals include those reserved through Airbnb, VRBO and other temporary lodging services.

“There’s been a lot of things in the last year and a half that have impacted how we license short-term rentals,” Jessica Hanscombe, the city’s permitting and inspections director, said at a Housing and Economic Development committee meeting in November. Hanscombe added that the city would prefer voluntary, not compulsory, compliance from landlords.

Portland has a contract with Granicus, a company that hosts online civic engagement platforms for governments internationally. Portland pays the software company $31,495 for use of a service called HOST Compliance, which monitors multiple online short-term rental platforms and compares them to the city’s registered units. Granicus sends notices to properties that have been verified to be in violation and the city follows up with notices, potentially issuing fines for failure to comply.

It is unclear how much of the enforcement lag is on the part of the city or the court system.

In November 2020, Portland narrowly rejected a measure to restrict all mainland short-term rentals to only those that are owner-occupied while increasing fees to register them. The ordinance would have also revoked short-term rental licenses for those with repeat violations.

Owners of short-term rental units are required to pay an annual registration fee, charging property owners double for those units as they do owner-occupied units. The registration fee for a single owner-occupied unit is $100. The fee for two units run by the same owner is $250, three units is $500, four units is $1,000 and five units is $2,000.