Cold, gray dawn light washes over Portland on Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A day after the Bangor Daily News reported the city’s planning board chief was renting an apartment on Airbnb during an unprecedented housing shortage, the listing was deleted and she reapplied for a long-term rental license.

Planning Board Chair Maggie Stanley had listed a first-floor Woodfords Corner neighborhood apartment in her building for $103 per night on the short-term rentals site mostly used by vacationers. Stanley’s previous long-term housing license for the unit ran out at the end of last year and was not renewed at the time.

According to city records, Stanley reapplied for the long-term license on Wednesday. The Airbnb listing was deleted around the same time.

Messages to Stanley seeking comment were not returned.

It wasn’t immediately clear what led to the reversal by Stanley. But the decision not to rent the one-bedroom as an apartment had been criticized by local Airbnb foes as unfair and bad optics for a powerful city leader, given the housing shortage in Portland.

“That sounds like good news,” said Leo Hilton of Stanley’s move. “That’s one more long-term unit someone like me could potentially rent.”

Hilton is co-chair of the Maine Democratic Socialists of America, which campaigned unsuccessfully last fall for a local ballot measure which would have curtailed short-term rentals in the city.

“Banning Airbnb isn’t going to solve the housing problem,” said Matt Walker of the Trelawny Building Tenants Union. “But if we could rein them in, it would help.”

As critics like Hilton and Walker see it, any long-term city rental unit taken off the market in favor of a short-term rental contributes to the overall housing shortage, as Airbnb listings are not aimed at locals who live and work in the city.

Recent studies identified the Portland-South Portland area as the epicenter of Maine’s current housing crunch, stating it was at least 8,000 units short. Last year, Portland ranked among the top 20 U.S. cities with the most expensive rents with a median, one-bedroom apartment going for $1,777 per month.

According to Kristen Dow, director of the Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, city government is also housing around 1,000 homeless people per night in various shelters, gymnasiums and motels.

Portland does not cap the number of owner-occupied short-term rental units. To be considered owner-occupied, someone must be renting out their own housing unit. Stanley was offering a separate unit in her two-unit building. Her Airbnb rental would not have been considered owner-occupied.

The city does cap the number of mainland, non-owner occupied short-term rental units — such as Stanley’s —  at 400. There are no limits on island short-term rentals, at all.

A search of Airbnb’s website brings up around 725 units currently available within Portland city limits. Prices range between $59 and $625 per night. The average cost is $274.

It’s unclear how many of those current Portland Airbnb listings are legal, and there have been violations of the city’s rules. While long-term rental licenses are searchable on Portland’s official website, their short-term counterparts are not.

According to the records Walker obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request last year, the city issued 1,083 short-term rental rules violations notices to landlords between March 8, 2018 and Sept. 7, 2022.

However, there was no indication in the records that any fines had ever actually been issued, or if they had been paid.

Walker requested that additional information more than four months ago on Nov. 1 but has yet to hear back from city officials.

“There are new units being built in Portland but it takes a long time for buildings to go up. Limiting Airbnbs would definitely free up some units,” he said.

Hilton said Stanley’s initial decision to rent on Airbnb amid Portland’s serious, ongoing housing inequities was more than just tin-eared and bad optics. He believes it’s a symptom of a much deeper issue in the city, where nearly everyone in city government power is a property owner, while the majority of the population are renters.

According to U.S. Census data, about 53 percent of Portlanders are living in rental units.

Four out of seven — a little more than half — of Portland planning board members own property in the city.

“Right now, only one city councilor, Victoria Pelletier, is a renter,” Hilton said. “This is a story about class and power in Portland.”

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