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Rent hikes at South Portland complex could force out low-income tenants

New property management company JRK Property Holdings took over Redbank Village in South Portland earlier this year. Now, big increases in rent prices are expected.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Kevin Gilson and his family have been living at their home in Redbank Village for about a year and two months. So far, it has served them well. 

Gilson and his girlfriend have a 6-year-old daughter, a 2-year-old son, and a baby on the way. Life is busy, but having a stable place to call their own has helped.

Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case soon. 

Gilson found out this week that his rent is increasing by hundreds of dollars. Right now, he pays about $800 out-of-pocket and uses a housing choice voucher to cover the rest of the $2,000 monthly expense. 

Earlier this year, California-based property management company JRK Property Holdings took over Redbank. Now, Gilson's rent is expected to climb to $2,400 per month, starting when his current lease runs out in April 2023.

"We were blindsided," Gilson said, "It worries me for me and my children. I’m not sure where we would go, if we didn’t have this place."

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Gilson gets a voucher because he's on disability. He uses a wheelchair after a car crash more than a decade ago. His girlfriend works full-time at a daycare, and he plays the role of stay-at-home dad. He said they signed a new lease back in April per an "exclusive" deal that JRK presented, saying if they signed before May 15, price wouldn't increase yet. 

"It’s all about [getting] the almighty dollar to a guy in La Quinta, California, living in a multimillion-dollar house who knows nothing about this area," Gilson said.

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Sandra Vickerson lives nearby and has been in her unit for about four years. She moved there to be closer to her son and daughter-in-law. Vickerson lives with her husband and sick sister and said it has already been hard enough keeping up with rent without an increase in price.

"My husband works 50-some hours a week, and he just barely makes his share of the rent," Vickerson said.

Vickerson said her rent is expected to go up hundreds of dollars, with no utilities included. She said she has tried to find assisted living housing for her sister and other units that might be affordable, but she's not having much luck. She also said she doesn't think her current apartment is worth the money JRK is asking for. 

"[There's] paint chipping. The bathroom floor [is] coming away from the tub. We get mold," Vickerson said.

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Nicole Bernier is the housing choice voucher program manager at the South Portland Housing Authority. She said SPHA issues vouchers to about 50 families who live in Redbank.

There was initially some concern the units would no longer meet "rent reasonableness," which would mean the residents would no longer be able to get vouchers for them, but she said there has been some progress this week.

After some reassessment of the market and crunching of numbers, Bernier said, most of the units likely will continue to meet "rent reasonableness." But residents will still end up paying more if they choose to stay. That's because at this point, SPHA can only pay up to a certain amount of money according to rules. 

"We’re hoping that these changes will at least be positive for some," Bernier said. "It’s still going to be detrimental for a large number of families."

Bernier said most families will have to pay at least 40 percent of their income in rent with these new prices. For some, that percentage goes up to even 100. She said JRK hasn't shown any flexibility, which is rare.

"Typically when that happens, you have a conversation with the landlord, and you come to an agreement somewhere in the middle," Bernier said, later adding, "The inflexibility of the negotiations is what’s making it unfair."

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Bernier said she and her team are hoping they will be able to increase the amount that payments can cover. In the meantime, Bernier recommends people apply to the Emergency Rental Assistance Program through The Opportunity Alliance.

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NEWS CENTER Maine reached out to Redbank Village and JRK Property Holdings for comment multiple times. We have not heard back yet.