After hours of testimony and arguments, Maine District Court Judge Susan Oram did not make a ruling in the eviction case against Portland’s former mayor in Maine District Court in Portland on Tuesday.
It could be months before a decision comes down, said attorney Scott Dolan, who is representing Ethan Strimling.
In Maine, landlords can evict tenants without providing a reason. But Strimling believes he was being targeted for organizing a tenants union and fighting illegal rent hikes. Evicting someone for doing that is illegal. It also violates Strimling’s First Amendment right to free speech and free association, Dolan argued.
A year and a half after Portland voters passed a rent control ordinance that encouraged residents to organize, Strimling’s case could be the first in which a tenants union tried to block an eviction.
Strimling, who was mayor of Portland from 2015 to 2019, received an Aug. 30 eviction notice ordering him to vacate his apartment by Dec. 1. That notice didn’t give a reason why he needed to leave, according to court documents.
Right; Former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling testifies during an eviction trial at Cumberland County Courthouse on Tuesday. Strimling and his attorney say Geoffrey Rice have tried to evict him because of his efforts to form a tenants union. Left; Scott Dolan, the lawyer for former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling, speaks during the Strimling’s eviction trial at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Tuesday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN
Strimling refused to leave. On Dec. 15, his landlord Geoffrey Rice began the legal process to force him out.
“This case is a clear case of retaliation, an attempt to break the Trelawny Tenants’ Union,” Dolan said in an opening statement, referring to a union of Rice’s tenants that Strimling helped organize.
Rice fought back against Strimling’s accusations, testifying that Strimling, who co-writes a column for the Bangor Daily News, was trying to “nickel and dime” him on rent and had become a nuisance to him as a landlord.
Strimling had fought against rent increases that were relatively minor, Rice said. And Strimling’s stature as mayor of Portland and then a well-established local figure had made dealings with him “intimidating,” Rice said.
Strimling and his attorney said that such communications are part of the normal back-and-forth between landlord and tenant and that he had always paid his rent on time — Rice confirmed the latter.
But Rice’s attorney David Chamberlain had a different take. He said in his opening statement that the case was simply about Rice’s business as a landlord rather than Strimling’s actions or political profile as a defender of tenants’ rights in Portland.
“It’s not about retaliation. It’s not about complaints to the city,” Chamberlain said. “It’s about economics.”
Rice also reported that he had observed Strimling leaving his window open last April, violating a section of the lease agreement that attempted to prevent unnecessary costs for the landlord, who paid for heat. That was when it became time to dissolve the already fraught relationship, ending Strimling’s rental, Rice said.
“I just wanted him out of my hair,” Rice said. “And I didn’t want to be intimidated anymore.”
But Dolan attempted to tie Rice’s actions to Strimling’s involvement in efforts to unionize as well as make the city aware of rent increases, including through email correspondence. Last summer, Portland officials found Rice had illegally raised the rent in Strimling’s building, violating the city’s rent control ordinance.
Rice had invited Strimling to a meeting on May 25 at the office of his attorney Paul Bulger, who also testified.
It was at that May meeting, of which testimony differed on how heavily the tenants union was a focus, that Strimling was served with a non-renewal notice from Rice. He paid rent for July and August, thinking that there was no longer a problem, before being served with the eviction notice, according to court testimony.
The Trelawny Tenants’ Union has around 100 members and communicates using messaging platform Discord, Strimling said. While Rice had met with an earlier iteration of the group, he eventually cut off communications, Strimling said.
Right; Former Portland mayor Ethan Strimling testifies during an eviction trial at Cumberland County Courthouse on Tuesday. Strimling and his attorney say Geoffrey Rice have tried to evict him because of his efforts to form a tenants union. Left; Geoffrey Rice, right, testifies as Ethan Strimling, left, watches at the Cumberland County Courthouse on Tuesday. Strimling, the former mayor of Portland, is fighting an eviction from one of Rice’s properties. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN
Strimling was an advocate for tenants rights while mayor of Portland and has continued to stay involved in local housing issues after leaving his post in December 2019. He said he was fighting the eviction in part because he was worried about the precedent it could set in Portland’s future.
“If you’re able to evict someone like me with this kind of profile, imagine what that might do to somebody else in the building who might not have the ability to fight back,” Strimling said.