July 21, 2024
Bangor Passes Tenant Bill of Rights, includes an image of an apartment building smiling in a cartoon style
Bangor City Council passed the Tenant Housing Rights ordinance. What's next for affordable housing? The Maine Legislature has a few bills up their sleeve.

If you follow me on social media, you’ve seen me pounding the virtual pavement for digital signatures on a petition I created to support a Tenant Housing Rights ordinance here in Bangor. This is an ordinance that was up for consideration by Bangor City Council. It adds chapter 282 to the city’s codes and provides some protections for tenants.

The Highlights

  • Increases the required notice for rent increases from 45 days to 60 days
  • Eliminates application fees for rentals
  • Limits screening fees to $75 or the actual cost of the screening, whichever is cheaper
  • Screening fees may only be charged to the individual who is approved for the rental unit
  • Bangor will create a document that explains at-will tenancy and all the rights and responsibilities of a tenant and make it available on the city’s website
  • Landlords must provide a copy of that document to tenants as well as updated copies when changes are made by the city

It’s a start.

Housing still has an affordability problem here in Bangor, even after this new ordinance takes effect. But it’s a start. Giving tenants an extra 15 days of notice on rent increases will help. Eliminating application fees will keep money in tenants’ pockets in an already brutal rental market. Educating tenants on their rights is important.

Most importantly, limiting the screening fees to the individual who is selected for the rental unit will be huge. The application process can be costly, especially when you’re forced to apply for several apartments at once to avoid the risk of losing the opportunity because the competition is so fierce. Putting in 4 or 5 applications at once could cost you a couple hundred bucks. Thanks to this new ordinance passing, that’s no longer the case.

What’s next?

There are a few bills coming down the pipeline at the state level here in Maine.

LD45 – An Act to Prevent Retaliatory Evictions

This bill provides that in an action of forcible entry and detainer there is a rebuttable presumption that the action was commenced in retaliation against the tenant if, within 6 months prior to the commencement of the action, the tenant has asserted the tenant’s rights pursuant to the laws requiring notice to the tenant of a rent increase, the laws prohibiting a rent increase for a dwelling unit that is in violation of the warranty of habitability or a municipal ordinance limiting rent increase. It also provides that to rebut the presumption of retaliation, a plaintiff in a forcible entry and detainer action must show by a preponderance of the evidence that a reason set forth in law or a violation of a lease provision is a substantial reason for bringing the action.

LD226 – An Act to Address Maine’s Affordable Housing Crisis

Would provide $200 million in funding for increasing Maine’s affordable housing stock over the course of 2 fiscal years.

LD557 – An Act to Decrease Discrimination Based on Evictions in Housing Applications

This bill prohibits landlords from asking about prior evictions or using prior evictions against the prospective tenant as a basis for denying the application. If enacted, this would be a huge victory for tenants. Many landlords disregard potential applicants when they see the word “eviction” on a background check, regardless of if the tenant prevailed in court or not. This bill has a hearing with the Judiciary Committee on March 9th, 2023, at 2pm.

LD690 – An Act to Streamline Rental Application Screenings by Allowing Potential Tenants to Use Screening Services

This bill would allow prospective tenants to use a screening service of their choice and provide that report to landlords in lieu of an application fee. If a landlord declines to accept the report and wants to run their own, the maximum fee they can charge a tenant is $25.

LD691 – An Act to Reduce Barriers to Housing by Prohibiting Tenant Application Fees

This law would take Bangor’s ordinance a step further by eliminating fees altogether. Bangor allows for a “screening fee”, whereas the Maine law as written here adds that landlords may not “…require a person to pay a fee for the landlord to review or approve an application to enter into an agreement for rental of a dwelling unit.”

This bill, along with LD690 (above), has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. No hearing date has been sent, and it is unclear which of the two bills, LD690 or LD691, is the preferred choice. Only one (if any) should make it out of the committee as they are contradictory.

LD701 – An Act to Increase the Notice Period for Rent Increases

This bill increases the notice period for rent increases from 45 days to 90 days. (Up from 60 in Bangor per new ordinance.) This bill has a hearing with the Judiciary Committee on March 9th, 2023, at 2pm.

More notice on a rent increase is always a good thing for tenants.

LD801 – An Act to Require Municipalities to Obtain Housing Units for Residents Experiencing Homelessness

This bill requires the municipal officers or the officers’ designee of a municipality to obtain or arrange for and maintain at least one housing unit within the municipality for every 1,000 residents of the municipality in order to provide living spaces for persons experiencing homelessness.

LD804 – An Act to Increase the Time Period for Notice to Terminate a Tenancy at Will

Current law provides that for either party to terminate a tenancy at will, the party is required to provide a minimum of 30 days’ notice. This bill increases that period of time to 90 days.

This bill means well. Tenants having more notice before being asked to leave their current housing is a good thing. But the 90 days notice goes both ways. If a tenant wants to leave, they too have to give 90 days notice. This could cause some problems for tenants a few different ways.

Let’s say a tenant’s rent is due on the 1st of each month, and the landlord wants to increase the rent by $700 per month. In each of these scenarios below the landlord notifies the tenant of the increase on March 1st.

LD804 Passes:

Tenant’s rent will increase on May 1st. Tenant spends a couple weeks looking for other options. Finds something more affordable. Under the new law the tenant gives a 90 day notice to terminate on March 15th.
Tenant pays normal rent for April.
Tenant pays increased rent for May.
Tenant pays increased rent for June.

Maine law says that since June rent was paid, tenant has until the paid rent is utilized. Tenant moves out June 30th.
The only way the tenant can avoid June’s increased rent is to decide within hours if they’re staying or not and give the landlord the 90 days notice the same day as the rent increase notice.

LD804 AND LD701 Passes:

Tenant’s rent will increase on June 1st (90 days notice).
– IF tenant gives 90 days notice to terminate to landlord the same day:
Tenant pays normal rent for April and May.
Tenant moves out May 31st.
– IF tenant delays giving notice, they’ll be on the hook for increased rent for June and would move out at the end of that month.

Currently without LD804 or LD701:

Tenant’s rent will increase on May 1st.
Tenant has until the end of March to give notice to avoid paying increased rent.

How LD804 could be fixed:

– Increase notice to 90 days for landlords only. Allow tenants to give 30 day notice.
OR
– Include an automatic waiver for the tenant to give notice when it’s due to a landlord’s rent increase.

LD885 – An Act to Help First-time Home Buyers in Maine

This bill proposes to modify the First Home Loan Program administered by the Maine State Housing Authority to strengthen support for first-time home buyers in this State.

LD853 – RESOLUTION, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine to Establish a Right to Housing

This resolution proposes to amend the Constitution of Maine to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to housing.

I agree that human beings should have a right to housing. It’s the right thing to do. Without housing people die. That’s an undeniable fact.

But what are the legal ramifications of enshrining housing as a human right in the state’s constitution? That’s something to consider. Here’s what ChatGPT thinks:

If Maine amends its constitution to declare that all individuals have a natural, inherent, and unalienable right to housing, there would be several potential legal ramifications:

Legal Challenges: There may be legal challenges to the amendment on the basis that it is unconstitutional or violates other laws. For example, opponents may argue that the amendment violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits states from denying equal protection under the law to any person within its jurisdiction.

Implementation: Implementing such an amendment would require significant resources and planning. The state would need to determine how to provide housing to all individuals and how to ensure that the housing provided meets basic standards of safety and quality.

Funding: The amendment may require significant funding to provide housing to all individuals. The state may need to increase taxes or divert resources from other programs to fund this initiative.

Impact on Property Rights: The amendment may have an impact on property rights, as it may require the government to take action to provide housing to individuals who cannot afford it. This could lead to conflicts with property owners who may object to government intervention in the housing market.

Impact on Housing Market: The amendment may have unintended consequences on the housing market. For example, if the state provides free or heavily subsidized housing to all individuals, this may discourage private investment in housing and could lead to a shortage of available housing.

Overall, while amending the Maine constitution to declare a right to housing may have noble intentions, it would also have significant legal and practical implications that would need to be carefully considered and addressed.

From a legal standpoint Maine may be better served getting all of its housing ducks in a row first, and then put an amendment to the constitution on the table as a capstone to ensure we never allow this state to fall into an unhoused crisis again.

With so many unhoused persons suffering in Maine, it is a moral imperative that we act. Maine is stepping up this legislative session and is looking to throw some real money at our housing crisis. But something that funding legislation for housing and homelessness has lacked here is accountability.

With unprecedented resources being made available for solving this crisis, it is a bitter pill to swallow that the amount of people experiencing homelessness is continuing to increase. There are certainly a number of factors contributing to that increase outside of what resources are available. But there are some hard looks that need to be taken at how we are (or aren’t) coordinating efforts at the state level.

Legislators in Maine will have to ask the questions if we’re going to get answers. I’ve quickly learned that those in coordination positions don’t appreciate being questioned by “lay persons.” True story. One for another time.