Maine DSA launches slate of ballot measures to make Portland ‘livable’

Hoping to build on the ballot wins of the 2020 People First Portland campaign that passed rent control, green housing standards and a $15 minimum wage, the Maine Democratic Socialists of America are now collecting signatures for a new slate of referendums aimed at making Maine’s largest city more accessible to working Portlanders.

Maine DSA has taken out papers in Portland for four ballot initiatives† They include raising the minimum wage in the city to $18 an hour, strengthening tenant protections and regulating short-term rentals and cruise ships.

“These referendums are a bid to make the city that we love and reside in livable: not only for business owners, not only for landlords, developers, and seasonal residents, not only for the 1%, not only for tourists,” wrote the volunteer leaders of the new “Campaign for a Livable Portland” in a June 2 post on Maine DSAs Pine & Roses news site.

The campaign springs from a lack of action by the Portland City Council, the organizers say, on the rising cost of living in the city due to inflation and soaring home prices

“We haven’t seen a ton of action from the council in terms of workers rights, or housing, or tenant rights, or the environment,” said Wes Pelletier, one of the organizers for the Livable Portland campaign. “It’s important for us to hold that line and make sure that Portland is pushing forward on these things, rather than just sitting around and allowing the status quo.”

An $18 minimum wage

Signs before the November 2020 election in support of People First Portland’s ballot initiatives. † Image via People First Portland

In 2020, 60.4% of Portland voters said “yes” to a ballot measure to create a $15 minimum wage with time-and-a-half hazard pay during emergencies, or $22 an hour. Since then, the city council has largely bucked the hazard pay provisions endorsed by voters. Earlier this year, the council struck down a proposal to require hazard pay for workers when there is a mask mandate in the city.

Now, the Livable Portland campaign is collecting signatures to increase the minimum wage to $18 an hour over three years and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.

“$15 doesn’t cut it anymore,” Pelletier said, pointing to steadily rising housing and other costs in the city.

Previous attempts to eliminate the tipped wage, a vestry or slavery, have failed at the state level. The restaurant industry has long argued that tips would go down if tipped wage were eliminated and, in response, some Maine servers have opposed its elimination in the past. But the Portland organizers are hopeful that attitudes in the low-pay service industry have shifted, particularly in light of the pandemic and its impacts on service industry workers. a 2021 survey found that 78% of Maine restaurant workers favored raising the federal minimum wage for tipped workers to $15 an hour.

In Maine, the tipped minimum wage is currently $6.38 an hour, half the statewide base wage of $12.75 an hour for non-tipped workers.

“For restaurant workers, a lot of them have to pool tips, which is wage theft,” Pelletier said. “We want to make sure that every single person is making at least $18 an hour. People who are getting tips should get tips on top of that wage. That seems like common sense.”

Stronger, better rent control

Maine DSA had success during the 2020 election in advancing tenant rights after years of groundwork laid by housing activists, the last being an unsuccessful 2017 campaign led by Fair Rent Portland. DSA passed a rent control law that established a rent board, limited rent increases to only once a year, and barred annual increases of more than 10%.

But landlords still have incredible power over their tenants in the city and organizers are hoping to build on what they’ve learned since 2020.

The new referendum would grant greater authority to the rent board to ensure landlords receive a fair return on investment and tenant complaints receive a fair hearing. It would also allow tenant unions to represent renters before the board, which isn’t currently permitted.

“We learned that the city’s not being super proactive about enforcing rent protections,” said Pelletier, who has also organized a tenants union at the apartment building where he resides. “My tenants union has had a very hard time trying to get the city to enforce laws. That is going to be an ongoing challenge. But tenants are talking to each other. They feel like they have an avenue for protection and empowering the rent board is a big part of that.”

The new proposal seeks to reduce tenant costs by setting annual rent increases to 70% of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), as well as restricting deposits to one month of rent and prohibiting application fees.

The measure also calls for 90-day notice for lease termination or rent increases, discourages no-cause evictions by allowing rent increases for voluntary turnover, and it sets a $25,000 fee for condominium conversions. Second try at regulating short-term rentals

The only defeat at the ballot that People First Portland saw in 2020 was a proposal to restrict short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO to owner-occupied residences. Portland voters opposed the measure by 52.1% after Airbnb poured money into the local election in opposition to the initiative.

Organizers are hoping that voters’ understanding of the pitfalls of unregulated short-term rentals, like reducing a community’s housing stock and driving up rents, has also shifted amid Maine’s deepening housing crisis

“Every single neighborhood in Portland is used to seeing people with suitcases just filing in and out of Airbnbs that should be places for tenants to live in,” Pelletier said. “I think the perception around Airbnbs has changed since 2020. I think it’s a little clearer what kind of racket they are. It’s not necessarily cheaper than just getting a hotel.”

Taking stock of what they learned in 2020, organizers adjusted the short term rental proposal. The current proposal would allow short-term rentals in two-unit buildings occupied by the owner, such as a homeowner who owns a two-flat and rents out one of the floors.

To keep neighbors informed, the measure would also require the city clerk to notify all residents within 500 feet of a registered short-term rental unit.

Taking on cruise ship industry

The Livable Portland campaign is also taking on the cruise ship industry, which dominates the city’s waterfront during the tourist season.

They are proposing to limit the number of passengers who may disembark in the city from cruise ships to no more than 1,000 people on a given day. Cruise ships made 409 port calls and brought 450,000 passengers to Maine in 2019, before the pandemic. The initiative, if successful, would go into effect in 2025.

The measure tries to confront the environmental impacts of cruise ships and what the organizers see as the exaggerated economic benefit to Portland businesses.

“You can’t go into the Old Port right now,” Pelletier said. “Those people aren’t going out to eat. They’re not really going past Fore Street. It basically closes off the city to anyone except the people who are coming off that cruise ship.”

The proposal is inspired by campaigns led by progressives in other cities dominated by tourism, like Bar Harbor, Key West and Barcelona. The idea is to reclaim some degree of local control over Portland, Pelletier explained.

“We’re absolutely looking to those sorts of movements in terms of our campaign and how we are messaging those things,” he said. “They are basically people living in a tourist economy rethinking how to make the place where they live habitable.”

Top photo of Portland by Corey Templeton.

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