Portland Housing Committee ready to plot priorities

PORTLAND — After four months of listening, the City Council Housing Committee is headed toward some starting points for policies.

The committee will first cull and review data gathered at its May 25 meeting at the University of Southern Maine. The committee chairwoman, Councilor Jill Duson, said the results from queries about 135 possible areas of action drawn from 17 themes will be ready for a June 8 committee meeting.

“This isn’t a vote, a survey or a ballot of any kind. It is a discussion,” Jack Kartez, professor emeritus of community planning and development at the Muskie School of Public Service, said before the May 25 meeting split into four groups to discuss the master list.

More than 100 people attended the meeting. Kartez and facilitators Amy Grommes Pulaski, Jennifer Hutchins, Maeve Pistrang and Hugh Coxe led the groups through an hour-long discussion in what was a listening session for councilors.

City Housing Planner Tyler Norod led the meeting with an overview of current conditions, noting a 2015 study by the Greater Portland Council of Governments found a growing gap between the demand and supply for affordable housing that could be as much as 33 percent in the next 15 years.

Up for discussion and evaluation were suggestions on improving tenant/landlord relationships, zoning revisions, financing for affordable housing projects, housing safety, development of city-owned land and senior housing.

Without fully organizing the data, councilors learned increasing the city’s housing stock while doing more to protect renters vulnerable to the current market were common objectives. Suggestions included rent control and requiring more notice given to tenants who are evicted without cause.

“The most fragile people are victims of these soft evictions … I am embarrassed at what we are going through,” Portland Disability Advisory Committee Chairwoman Renee Berry-Huffman said.

Others, including Tom Ptacek of Preble Street, wanted the city housing replacement ordinance to be more strictly enforced so developers would have to replace all lost affordable housing units.

“The housing replacement ordinance is nothing but a paper tiger,” he said.

Casey Gilbert, executive director of the nonprofit Portland Downtown, was among those urging councilors to proceed with caution.

“There should not be regulatory overreaction, while regulatory approval should be streamlined,” she said.

Pistrang noted streamlined permitting was also important to the group she led, as was increasing density allowances in areas near public transportation.