Landlords argued the rental registry would drive them out of Waterville and worsen the city's housing crisis.
Dan Bernier, a lawyer representing the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association, argued against a proposed rental registration ordinance during a Waterville City Council meeting on Tuesday. Credit: Screenshot

WATERVILLE, Maine — After months of crafting and revising a rental registration ordinance, Waterville officials and landlords who packed a City Council meeting Tuesday couldn’t find a compromise.

The proposal was discussed in October, when councilors said the rental registration was meant to aid code enforcement, police and fire departments with contact information for landlords, especially during emergencies, and document the city’s rental properties.

Dan Bernier, a Waterville lawyer representing the Central Maine Apartment Owners Association, said the ordinance could drive landlords out of the city, and argued those points again Tuesday. This time, dozens of landlords attended, plus tenants, who said they worry about their privacy and consequences to their tenancies.

Maine’s cities and towns are scrambling to address a housing crisis that’s resulted in soaring rents for homes and apartments. Waterville officials see the ordinance as a way to keep properties well maintained and safe as the city also approves projects for new housing, like one that will convert the former Seton Hospital tower into 67 apartments.

But many landlords think the ordinance was poorly written and imposes hardships on them, which they argue would discourage investment in Waterville and worsen the housing crisis.

Apartment owners association president Steve Casey said the majority of its nearly 700 members oppose the ordinance because the city can obtain contact information from other sources like tax records, and the paperwork and inspections are burdensome and “warrantless inspections are unconstitutional.”

“This ordinance will slow investment in Waterville, especially with small investors when they want to buy a two- or three-family unit and can just go to the next town over,” he said. “It may increase the housing shortage and increase rental rates and [cause] homelessness to rise.”

The association provides educational sessions to landlords to teach them about keeping their properties safe and up to code, Casey said.

Landlords deal with stress and hardship, and they’re just trying to stay afloat like other businesses, said Jeff Cyr, who has been a landlord for 22 years. They spend thousands of dollars on court costs and services such as cleaning, painting and removing asbestos.

Lead paint and asbestos could cause insurance companies to increase rates because they realize more risk is involved, which means rent costs will increase, Cyr said. That’s just one example, and there will be a chain reaction, he said.

“It would be nice to be thrown a life jacket instead of 50-pound weights,” he said. “We’re tired of always fighting to survive as a business. If you can rewrite it [the ordinance] and go after the landlords who need it, please do.”

Waterville’s problem is a lack of housing and investment in housing, which Bernier said the city should encourage. The proposed language was modeled on a similar ordinance in Lewiston, which Bernier called the state’s poster child for lead poisoning, but noted Waterville hasn’t had those same issues.

“I have an abandoned unit across the street from me that is full of lead,” Councilor Thomas McCormick said. “Don’t say there’s not a lead problem in this town. The guy either wants to get it rented again or wants to get it sold, and it’s full of lead.”

Bernier later clarified there may be lead poisoning in Waterville, but Maine Department of Health and Human Services data show the city hasn’t had a significant problem with children testing positive for it, he said.

Bernier asked a Lewiston landlord about the city’s rental registration, and he wasn’t aware that one existed, he said. The lawyer spoke with others and gathered that there is no enforcement of the ordinance, but the city has a portal where landlords can fill out information, he told councilors.

If Waterville posted a voluntary portal for landlords, most would provide their contact information  without “this large regulatory regime,” Bernier said.

Chair Rebecca Green argued some of Bernier’s points, like those about the ordinance’s annual safety checklist being problematic because even the best tenants don’t like when landlords come into their homes unnecessarily, and this requires an annual inspection.

“I think there are some misconceptions about this,” Green said. “This is not a yearly inspection. The personal residence of an apartment owner will not be inspected.”

The ordinance initially had a safety checklist that would have required landlords to inspect their buildings, Green said, but it was removed after the housing committee received feedback from landlords. The checklist is now a page listing existing ordinances and requirements that ask landlords for a signature, which is simply an acknowledgment, she said.

There were many instances during the meeting when ordinance language was interpreted differently by councilors and landlords. In some instances, they agreed to remove language or revise it to make it clearer.

Resident Winona Karns has rented the same house for 12 years and said the ordinance rips privacy from tenants, all for a landlord’s phone number. Landlord-occupied residences would be exempt under the ordinance, which places tenants into another category that isn’t being treated fairly, she said, noting the ordinance won’t keep bad landlords from having poorly maintained rentals.

“Why is this ordinance making people who rent second class to landlords?” she asked.

Another tenant wondered if the ordinance led to a scenario where someone found mold in her basement, what that would mean for her tenancy and the landlords. She warned councilors that the city should not want to end up with unhoused people as an impact of the ordinance.

“This is not about targeting particular individuals,” Green said. “It’s not about punishing landlords in general, which seems to be the impression. The goal here is to make sure there’s safe housing in Waterville.”

Following a lengthy conversation, the council unanimously voted to table the ordinance. They will revisit it at a meeting March 7.