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Several proposed bills in Maine legislature aim at helping renters

A number of potential bills in this year's legislative session would change the way landlords evict tenants and how tenants apply for rental properties.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Martin Ali has lived at Redbank Village apartments for the last year and a half. He remembers the spotlight his complex was in vividly.

"Since we came here, we started looking for a new place," Ali said. He added that his rent hikes weren't as severe as others had it.

In 2022, NEWS CENTER Maine reported the new property owner for Redbank proposed rent hikes upwards of $600. Many Redbank residents said they were low-income and could not afford the potential spikes. The City of South Portland ended up instituting an eviction moratorium and a rent cap for the remainder of the year.

But now Martin Ali and his family of five are moving out. After years of renting, they purchased a home.

"I'm very happy, very excited... it's finally coming through," Ali said while packing bags of clothes and miscellaneous items into a truck. 

But while Ali and his family ride off into a new chapter of their lives, thousands of Maine renters face similar challenges of availability and affordability.

The housing crisis is shown in proposed bill titles in the Maine legislature, with more than a dozen aimed at protecting renters and opening up more availability for affordable housing.

Representative Christopher Kessler, a Democrat representing parts of Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, has at least five bills aimed at protecting renters.

One, LR 86, would abolish application fees for renters.

"Application fees can be a barrier on housing for people, when you have to pay for multiple apartments, you can pay hundreds of dollars only to be unsuccessful in finding a house," Kessler said. 

Kessler is also proposing a bill title that would increase the time a landlord notifies a tenant of a rent increase from 45 days to 90 days. Another potential bill would prohibit excessive fees such as charging tenants for snow plows and cutting grass, all of which exist at Redbank according to Ali.

Representative Kessler said his bills for renters could see a read and vote later in the spring.

But one item aimed at protecting renters is having a hearing the first week of February, according to the bill's sponsor, Senator Anne Carney of Cumberland.

Carney, a Democrat, said her bill would require proof that a landlord is evicting a tenant for legal reasons if a tenant challenges them. 

There are current protections in place for tenants who accuse landlords of illegal behavior, according to Frank D'Alessandro of Maine Equal Justice, but Senator Carney said this bill would go further. It's titled LR 47.

"People's lives are upended when they get a notice of eviction, and if a tenant knows that notice is in violation of the law, they don't know where to turn," Senator Carney said. "It just gives an added layer of protection in the eviction hearing for tenants who have reported illegal behavior."

D'Alessandro said LR 47 is critically important to pass as evictions disproportionately target low-income residents.

"That would be very important because right now, while there is a presumption of retaliation, the landlord can give any reason, so it's really hard to enforce the law the way it is currently written," D'Alessandro said. "I think that is a really important improvement to this law that would provide some significant protection to tenants that doesn't currently exist."

There are also other potential bill titles, such as LR 663, which would extend the emergency rental assistance program, which is set to expire in the spring.

Another potential title would enact a statewide rent stabilization measure, title LR 19.

Many of these potential bills are still awaiting language from the revisor's office and could change, be consolidated, or be dropped altogether.

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