Phil Harriman (left) and Ethan Strimling, BDN Agree to Disagree bloggers. Credit: Gabor Degre

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Ethan: I assume you have seen that many cities in Maine are looking to, or already have, restricted short-term rentals. South Portland passed the strongest restrictions. Rockland is looking to ban them from residential areas. Bangor is grappling with almost 100 illegal units. And Portland, my beloved Portland, passed soft rules in 2017, weakened them further in 2018, and was barely enforcing any of it in 2021. So now, in 2022, we are looking to win back much of the housing we have lost with ballot Question B.

Phil: Indeed I am following this trend. Instead of creating flexibility within building regulations, making it less expensive for developers to meet the housing we need, liberals want to grip the free market by the throat to social engineer the results they want. Oh, by the way, weren’t you the mayor when those “weak rules” were passed in Portland?

Ethan: I was indeed. I tried to get the city council to recognize what was happening. I pushed for us to adopt the staff recommendation that we restrict STRs to only owner-occupied, and to charge much higher fees. But Airbnb is a mighty force. In fact, a year after we put the initial restrictions in place, Airbnb convinced the council to allow them to take 100 more units off the long-term rental market! And people wonder why our housing crisis is getting worse.

Phil: Airbnb is a powerful force because it is made up of a lot of families who are just trying to earn an extra dollar to pay their property taxes. Seniors. Single mothers. Just middle-class America trying to survive, and you want to take that opportunity away from them.

Ethan: Actually what I want, and 2,000 other people who signed our petitions want, is to limit STRs to 1 percent of the rental market, as opposed to the 3 percent we have now. A drop from 510 to 170. Every one of those former STRs can now become much-needed long-term housing. And with rents as high as they currently are, landlords will still be able to earn a handsome profit.

Phil: Again, I ask why not make regulations affordable for those who want to build housing, rather than take revenue for living expenses from hundreds of homeowners?

Ethan: Fun fact. The tallest building in Maine is now being built in downtown Portland and it will produce 266 rent-controlled units. By voting yes on this initiative, we will create almost 30 percent more rent-controlled housing than that project – 340 units. Honestly, that’s more housing than I can remember any single project producing in Portland in decades, if ever.

Phil: Maybe there is a reason for that lack of developer investment in what Portland needs most? Maybe onerous and time-consuming permitting?

Ethan: Except plenty of housing is being built. The problem is that it isn’t enough and most of it is going to high-end buyers. It’s why we passed rent control in 2020 and are trying to strengthen those rules this year.

Phil: I’m looking forward to diving into the disaster called rent control next week. In the meantime, I  hear there are two STR initiatives on the ballot. What’s the other one?

Ethan: Question A. Written by short-term rental owners, it locks in all the current short-term rentals, creates no new housing, and blocks any new owners from entering the market for five years.

Phil: Ah, the counter sucker punch. Nothing worse than business owners trying to get voters to support their alternative one-sided response. I’d vote no on that one too. Sounds like what the casino operators wrote for themselves when you and I fought those initiatives 20 years ago.

Ethan: Pretty much.