Two girls walk by a sign that reads "Redbank Village Apartments"
A pair of schoolgirls walk by the entrance to Redbank Village in South Portland on Friday morning, May 27, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Facing a rental market that shows no sign of slowing down, several southern Maine communities are taking steps to ease the pressure on the hundreds of thousands of local renters. But Portland-style rent control isn’t one of them.

In November 2020, Portland became the first community in Maine to have rent control after voters passed a referendum capping rent increases and requiring advanced notice of increases from landlords to tenants.

But almost two years later, and amid a housing crunch like none ever seen before in Maine, officials contacted from seven of the communities in southern Maine with the highest renting rates each said rent control was not something they’re considering. The lack of desire to do so makes it unlikely the policy will spread far beyond Portland’s borders — and many officials say it would even be counterproductive.

Biddeford is the only community beside Portland in the metro area where a majority of residents pay rent. Yet, finding an apartment there right now is “next to impossible,” said Mayor Alan Casavant.

“We’ve got a market that is essentially at capacity,” Casavant said.

Still, Casavant said that while he and other city officials had closely watched Portland in the aftermath of its rent control ordinance, they haven’t been sold on the idea.

“Rent control is not a panacea for what’s happening here,” Casavant said. “The recourse is to ensure that there’s more housing constructed.”

Advocates of rent control in Portland, primarily aligned with the progressive wing of the city’s divided politics, say it has succeeded in keeping costs low for Portland residents. They’re looking to build on it with a new referendum this November.

However, opponents, such as the Southern Maine Landlord Association have accused it of decreasing turnover on apartments, reducing housing stock and even failing to keep rents low.

Mayor Bill Doyle of neighboring Saco said the city hadn’t looked at rent control, noting that the interests of landlords needed to be balanced with those tenants. He said Saco was in the process of looking at a new housing development that would bring in hundreds of new units.  

It’s likely that such a project would fill up fast: Both Biddeford and Saco have been on the up-and-up, noted for their downtown and its prominent food scene.

As is the case with many of the southern Maine communities drawing new residents from in and out of Maine, it’s a double-edged sword. Doyle acknowledged that increased interest was likely driving up housing prices in Saco, to the detriment of both renters and homebuyers.

“When people move here, they’re buying houses at $40-50-60,000 over asking,” Doyle said.  “That inflates the costs of all the houses.”

Renters make up a majority of households in very few of Maine’s communities. Outside of Portland’s metro area, Waterville, Orono, Caswell, Bangor, Hammond, Lewiston, Livermore Falls and Hallowell are the only majority-renter municipalities, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

Each of those have seen their home values go up around 50 percent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, substantially raising rents, according to newly released data from Zillow. Data was not available for Caswell and Hammond.

The increasingly difficult conditions for tenants has driven municipal officials to take housing more seriously than ever. Brunswick is on the verge of forming a housing task force to examine a number of problems, including the rental market, as part of their “charge,” said town council chair Jim Mason.

Mason said he was unsure if rent control was the right move for Brunswick. Still, he didn’t think there was any harm in at least contemplating what it would accomplish.

“I don’t see why it wouldn’t be at least considered,” Mason said. “All ideas should be discussed.”

The current market has made many officials pessimistic, but Emily Ruger, director of community and economic development for the city of Bath, said she had been pleasantly surprised at the level of collaboration the housing crisis had fostered — including between the public and private sectors.

“I think it’s the most collaborative I’ve ever seen with any issue,” she said. “People are really taking proactive steps. It’ll be interesting to see the results even a year from now.”

Bath recently passed an ordinance that allows owners to add an accessory dwelling unit to their homes. Like other communities, they are also working to update their zoning to make new housing developments easier to build.

Rent control is not something that is being talked about in Bath, Ruger said. Neither is it farther south in Kittery.

“Rent control is not in our tool box, but we have been working on mandating and incentivizing affordable housing,” Kittery town manager Kendra Amaral said.

Sanford is another community with a lot of renters: around 3,200 renting households, according to 2020 Census Bureau data, making up around 36 percent of total households in the city.

The rental market there also has become extremely tight, mayor Anne-Marie Mastraccio said. It’s a phenomenon that began pre-pandemic when people began seeking out Sanford amid rising prices in the nearby communities of Portland, Biddeofrd, Westbrook and Saco, she said.

While she doesn’t expect the city to look at rent control, it is trying to address the problem by getting vacant and abandoned properties livable and back on the market.

The problem is being magnified by out-of-state investment groups buying up apartments and immediately increasing rent, she said. It is a familiar sight in the Portland area, most famously at Redbank Village in South Portland, where rents have skyrocketed since it was bought by a Los Angeles-based company last November.

South Portland, which had already had requirements in place on notices for raising rent, responded by passing an emergency ordinance last month that caps rent increases until the end of the year. South Portland Mayor Deqa Dhalac did not respond to a request for comment about possible future efforts.

Some new housing projects are on the way in Sanford, but the cost of building new units is skyrocketing as well, putting some of those projects on a slower track, Mastraccio said.

“Virtually no single family home is selling at asking price, and cash is king,” she said. “Sanford always had affordable houses for the first-time home purchaser. No longer.”