Recently, Brit Vitalius’ Southern Maine Landlord Association — which last year began operating under the assumed name “Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine” — launched a referendum in Portland deceptively titled An Act to Improve Rent Control. Many Portlanders who have interacted with their canvassers have expressed concern over deceptive pitches and a refusal to allow them to read the text of the amendment before deciding whether to sign. This article examines what exactly these landlords are asking the tenants of Portland to support, what it would mean for our city, and who exactly is behind their astroturfing campaign.

How Rent Control Works Today

First of all, not all apartments are rent-controlled. One especially-notable example is that owner-occupied buildings with up to 4 units are exempt. All rent-controlled apartments can have their rent raised to match 70% of inflation each year, except in the case of extenuating circumstances such as major improvements the landlord performs. Such reasons for higher increases must be taken before the rent board and under no circumstances can rent increases exceed 10%. Landlords who chose to raise rents less than they’re allowed to can ‘bank’ the increase to spread it out in smaller increases over multiple years. In the case of voluntary turnover, landlords can raise rent by 5%. Even with banked increases, landlords CANNOT legally raise rents more than 10% / year. For more information, see the Rent Control and Rental Housing Rights website.

Portland’s hard-earned rent control also contains many other important protections like banning application fees, but for now the Southern Maine Landlord Association has decided to focus their attack on deregulating increases for voluntary turnovers.

Vacancy Decontrol

Many other municipalities around the country have passed rent control in response to organized working-class campaigns. Unfortunately, many of these areas have introduced policies that — either from the get-go or at the behest of landlords — allow large rent increases upon instances of “voluntary turnover.” In the case of the proposal from the Southern Maine Landlord Association, these rent increases have no limit. Not 20%, not 10%, not 5%, unlimited. That means if your landlord opts to make your apartment nearly uninhabitable with late-night construction, deteriorating maintenance, and any number of dirty tricks, they can raise the rent as far as they would like before renting it to another unsuspecting tenant. Effectively, this relatively minor-sounding change guts the ability of rent control to constrain market prices by focusing on the price of the apartment throughout the occupancy of a single tenant, rather than across the occupancy of all tenants. This policy directly incentivizes landlords to play dirty so that tenants will leave and they can jack up rent increases. If vacancy decontrol passes in Portland it will further stoke the fires of gentrification, driving up prices and forcing out working class tenants and those on fixed incomes as all the apartments around them become ever more unaffordable as we have seen in nearby major cities without rent control.

Who is behind this?

While Portland’s campaign finance laws have so far only required the Southern Maine Landlord Association to report their campaign finances through February 9th – and we may not get another report until April 11th – the first filings are already telling us all we need to know.

In their registration, the “Committee to Improve Rent Control” lists a single address for all of its decisionmakers, treasurer, and principal officers. That address is Brit Vitalius’ building at 306 Congress St – the headquarters of the Southern Maine Landlord Association and Vitalius’ company, Vitalius Real Estate Group.

In their campaign finance report, they show their first 4 donations totaling $25,000:

  • $10,000 – 132 Marginal Way LLC – The Linden – Port Property Management – Tom Watson
  • $5,000 – West Company – Tom Watson
  • $5,000 – Southern Maine Landlord Association – Brit Vitalius
  • $5,000 – Reliant Group Management of San Francisco – Owner of Back Bay Tower

Now that we have some names, let’s see what sort of history these folks looking to “improve rent control” have with rent control in Portland:

Tom Watson, through a series of front companies including Port Property Management, West Company, Tom Watson and Co, West Bracket Inc, Spring Street West Corp, and others, appears to have spent at least $80,000 in opposition since 2017.

Southern Maine Landlord Association and its president Brit Vitalius have opposed rent control in Portland since day one, spending at least $30,000 in opposition since 2017.

Finally, Reliant Group Management, a California company that owns Back Bay Tower at 401 Cumberland Ave via an LLC named Seaforth Housing, has spent $55,000 since 2017 opposing rent control in Portland.

On that same finance report, they also show a single expenditure for $9,000 to “Property Management Company” in Poland, ME which they have strangely hired to gather signatures. Who lives at the rural address of this “Property Management Company?” According to the White Pages, it’s David Wayne Boyer Jr, the anti-vax, Republican state representative for Poland and Mechanic Falls who proudly poses on his facebook page with US Senator Rand Paul. Predictably, David Boyer Jr is also a Portland landlord, owning a two-unit in East Deering. As with Enough is Enough, Republicans like Brit Vitalius and David Boyer Jr and their friends like Tom Watson are again trying to carry out their anti-tenant, anti-worker agenda from behind the scenes knowing they cannot win out in the open in our progressive city.

~~~ Correction ~~~

The final paragraph of this article originally stated that David Boyer owned a three rental units. Fortunately, this error was brought to our attention and we have corrected it. Our sincere thanks to Rep Boyer for reaching out to correct this inaccuracy.