This month, the city's Planning Board chair began offering an Airbnb rental.
A for rent sign stands outside a building in Portland in 2022. This month, the city's Planning Board chair began offering an Airbnb rental. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — This month, the city’s Planning Board chair began offering a one-bedroom apartment, in her two-unit building, as a short-term Airbnb rental, taking it off Portland’s long-term rental market.

While completely legal, some say it’s a bad look for a powerful city official, especially during an unprecedented affordable housing crisis.

Planning Board Chair Maggie Stanley is renting the first-floor Woodfords Corner neighborhood apartment for $103 per night or up to $3,000 per month. Stanley’s long-term housing license at the property ran out at the end of last year and was not renewed, according to city records.

“Walking distance to coffee shops, restaurants, and Back Cove,” reads the online listing. “Access to shared yard, fire pit and grill. Ask about going for a ride in our lobster boat!”

Stanley has been on the Planning Board since Feb. 2016. The board reviews and decides on all major development proposals in Portland.

“It shows exactly where we are as a community,” said Wes Pelletier, former chair of the Livable Portland Campaign. “City officials see housing not as a human right but as a way to make profits.”

The campaign was an offshoot of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and sought, among other things, to reduce the number of short-term rentals in Portland. The referendum for that particular measure didn’t pass.

A recent study found Maine’s shortage of new housing has quadrupled over the past seven years, with the vast majority of the shortfall in Greater Portland. The Portland-South Portland area is short 8,000 units, according to Up for Growth, a national housing affordability research and company group.

Last year, Portland ranked among the top 20 U.S. cities with the most expensive rents at a time when one- and two-bedroom apartment rents were decreasing nationally for the first time in two years, in a survey released by Zumper, which analyzed rental data from more than 1 million active listings across the country.

In late 2022, a median one-bedroom apartment rented in Portland for $1,777. That put the city 18th, just behind Honolulu, Hawaii, according to the Zumper survey.

Portland has identified creating housing for its workforce as something important and included the stated goal of adding 2,557 housing units by 2027, or an average of 256 units per year in the city’s comprehensive plan as a result. In 2022, the Planning Board approved 317 rental and condominium units. Of those units, only 103 were subsidized and will remain affordable at or below 60 percent of the area’s median income.

“It’s not just bad optics,” former Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said of Stanley’s move. “It’s bad for tenants who are struggling to survive this housing crisis. Losing long term housing to short term profit is destroying our city.”

Strimling is a vocal supporter of increased short-term rental regulation.

Reached Tuesday morning, Stanley said she wasn’t yet ready to discuss the matter. But she acknowledged the apparent discord between her official position on the Planning Board and the decision to forgo the long-term rental for a shorter version.

“As someone that also feels like there is a climate crisis, I also drive a gas powered vehicle to work every day,” Stanley said. “I’m happy to give you my take and reasonings and how I sleep at night, but I’m not going to go on the record for it, right now.”

Pelletier was less circumspect and said the loss of long-term rentals to tourist-oriented Airbnb’s is bad for the city and looks even worse when it’s the head of the Planning Board doing the conversion.

“We can’t look at this body as unbiased,” he said. “These are the people in charge of carrying out our planning system. It’s not fair to the people trying to find an affordable place to live in Portland.”

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.