Bangor is considering a proposal that would strengthen tenants’ protections against rising rents, but may face opposition from landlords and realtors.
Renters reported receiving hundreds of dollars in rent increases over the summer, adding to an already competitive market where vacancies are low for both tenants and would-be homebuyers, and the number of homeless residents is increasing.
Bangor officials said earlier this month that they would consider capping housing application fees at $50, reaffirm housing discrimination laws and lengthen the amount of advance notice landlords must give tenants before raising their monthly rents from 45 days to 60.
The ordinance, which the city called a “tenants’ bill of rights,” would not include a proposal for rent control that a state representative and a handful of councilors called for over the summer. Portland is the only city in Maine with a rent control ordinance that caps landlords’ ability to raise monthly rents, by limiting those increases to 10 percent every year.
But a group of landlords and realtors, mainly from the Greater Bangor Association of Realtors, pushed back against the proposed ordinance at a City Council government operations committee meeting last week. They argued the state already required them to give ample notice of rent increases and that capping application fees would force them to charge every applicant a fee instead of only tenants they have approved to live in a rental unit.
The opposition from landlords offers a preview of the difficult path forward for a modest proposal to strengthen tenants’ position in a tough rental market.
Kurtis Marsh, an associate broker with Realty of Maine, said he wasn’t opposed to increasing the required notice for rent increases, but is against capping application fees because the proposed maximum doesn’t account for the time or cost of screening potential tenants.
“By putting more regulation in place, it makes it harder to do affordable housing,” Marsh said.
His company only charges application fees to people approved for a housing unit, but the $50 cap wouldn’t cover what he pays his staff for the two or three hours needed to screen renters, and would force him to levy a fee on every applicant if it went into effect.
“It ends up costing somewhere between $100 and $150 just to screen every applicant that takes a unit,” he said. The City Council is “looking at well, ‘What does a credit report cost?’”
Developer Emily Ellis said landlords were only asking for more rent to keep up with the rising cost of utilities like fuel, and the city was protecting tenants at the expense of landlords.
“If we’re asking for more money, it’s only because we’re being charged more money to provide housing,” she said. “If we don’t have people investing in Bangor and seeing it as a place of opportunity to invest, that’s not good for housing or the homeless, either.”
Jamie Beck, the founder of Dignity First, a Bangor nonprofit that connects homeless people to low-cost housing, called the city’s proposal a “good start,” but said the opposition was troublesome given the scarcity of housing stock in the Bangor area. That scarcity puts tenants at a disadvantage, and Beck pointed out that most tenants assumed utility costs like electricity and heat.
“Rents are insane right now,” she said, pointing out that a Bangor developer’s proposal to build and rent tiny homes for $1,500 a month was unaffordable for people making minimum wage.
People would need to make at least $5,000 a month after taxes to afford a $1,500 monthly rent so that they wouldn’t be paying more than 30 percent of their monthly income for rent, Beck said.
“That is not the mean income for Bangor,” she said. “That’s not the mean income for any of these surrounding areas.”
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In addition, the proposal, which reaffirms existing state laws protecting tenants from housing discrimination, doesn’t protect tenants from landlords who refuse to take housing vouchers, which many of the people Beck works with rely on to afford their monthly rent. In addition, she said, the proposal doesn’t address circumstances when vouchers don’t cover the full rent.
She has heard from a handful of people who applied for apartments using housing vouchers, but were denied because the landlords wouldn’t take split payments, through which tenants pay for the bulk of the rent using a voucher and cover the remainder with cash.
“Where does that leave anybody?” Beck said. Renters “can’t use the voucher that they have applied for, and [took] a lot of work to get, and so it just sits there.”
The city solicitor’s office is updating the tenants’ rights proposal and expects to present a new version to the council sometime next month, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.