City Ignores Renter Issues Favoring Developers at Housing Committee Meeting

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Dr. Christopher Hebert, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Dr. Christopher Herbert, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

By Carol McCracken  (Post # 2,547)

By its failure to take any action to relieve the crisis that renters in Portland are facing, the city has lost any creditability it could have had on this issue.  Despite a well documented full-blown crisis, the city continues to bury its head in the sand when it comes to renters – who comprise more than half of the city’s residents – that is if they have not all been displaced by excessively high rents,  a zero vacancy rate, condominium conversion of their rental units and other housing issues.

Last night’s transparent dog and pony show staged by the city’s housing committee  highlighted this incestuous relationship – between the city and the real estate industry. A “preaching to the choir” event was staged to present only what the council wanted to hear and nothing else.  The city is proud of its record in making development more profitable and  easier for all developers to take advantage of in a low-income neighborhood lacking any regulations to protect or safeguard  tenants..  Munjoy Hill is ripe for predators who call themselves business men.

Jeff Levine, Director of the Planning Office, with his presentation, received a pat on the back for his efforts in making this a developers’ paradise.  City officials would be hard pressed to find anything they have done to protect an unorganized group of people from many of the predators who operate in the city – under the guise of “business.”

Dr. Christopher Herbert, Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, was the lead speaker in a tightly controlled list of elocutionists . Someone went to great lengths to organize the speakers.  Dr. Herbert spoke at length about the growing challenges that renters are facing.  More than 1 in 4 renters are paying more than half of their income for monthly rent when thirty percent is the standard. Dr. Herbert stated that since 2000 the median income of renters has “fallen by 9 percent in real terms.”

Dr. Herbert said that the median rent on new units is nearly $1,400. and has gone up by 26% in two years. One reason for this is the “astounding growth in the number of higher income renters”  – partly because of the recent recession and mortgage scandal.  He also praised the city for its policies that support development in the city. The number of homeless people is astronomical – with city shelters full to overflowing. The number of homeless people camping out on Congress Street is shocking said Mark Swann, Director of Preble Street.

No surprise here.   The real estate industry was well represented by  Brit V’italius, Joe Malone and Jonathan Culley.  Vitalius, Pesident, Southern Maine Landlord Association, challenged Dr. Herbert’s claim on excessive rent increases –  saying that national surveys are  inaccurate reflections of the situation here in Portland.  He has stated previously that he believes the crunch on vacancy rates has diminished.  Who knew?  (Certainly not this renter looking to relocate!)  (Figurehead Mayor Strimling, the “darling” of the real estate industry, attended the meeting.) Despite this data, and more about the crisis for renters, no interest was expressed on what can be done to relieve the situation.

Jonathan Culley, of Redfern Properties, a high end developer (Munjoy Heights) in Portland, lobbied  the councilors to  eliminate its policy on parking – parking spaces are very expensive to construct he testified before an empathetic planning board regarding his newest development on Congress Street.  The elimination of parking requirements would increase his bottom line drastically. That is why car owners at that residence will be charged extra. Culley also refuted Dr. Hebert’s charge that conditions have made high-end developments attractive to developers.  Culley is just trying to get by!  He is currently building several rental buildings on Congress Street and in Bayside – and boy the city should be grateful to him for taking this on!

Despite all the pro-development posturing, the city did not find it necessary to insure that an expert on renters’ issues was also on the select list of speakers yesterday. That speaks volumes to renters and people of good conscious!.