YMCA: Housing law change will create homelessness
City officials dispute YMCA chairman’s warnings
By Chris Busby
A change in Portland’s housing code intended to protect residents of short-term housing from unfair eviction would end up creating more homelessness, said Cyrus Hagge, Chairman of the Cumberland County YMCA.
The change would make the YMCA and YWCA subject to the same rules the city applied two years ago to other providers of rooming houses and single-room-occupancy units (SROs). Acting in response to claims that some landlords were evicting SRO tenants unfairly and with little or no notice, the Portland City Council amended the housing code in 2004 to give people who reside in such housing without a lease for more than 30 days the same legal rights and protection from eviction other renters have – so-called “tenant at will” status.
The YMCA and YWCA were exempt from the rule change at the time because they technically qualified as “lodging houses,” a classification that includes hotels and bed and breakfasts. The rule change currently under consideration would eliminate that exemption for the Y’s. The city council’s Housing Committee approved the change earlier this year, and the full council is scheduled to vote on it at its first meeting in August.
Hagge said the change would force the Y’s to “operate like an apartment building,” renting their units monthly, rather than on a weekly basis, and requiring security deposits equal to a month’s rent. Otherwise, Hagge said, the non-profit social service agencies will be at the mercy of problem tenants who could cause damage or disruption, or refuse to pay rent, and still be protected from eviction. The process of evicting someone protected by “tenant at will” status is costly and can take up to 45 days, said Hagge.
City Councilor Jim Cloutier, a member of the Housing Committee, disputes this. He said eviction laws have been “reformed” so it no longer takes up to a month-and-a-half to go through the process. And if a tenant is destroying property, assaulting or harassing neighbors or otherwise breaking the law, Cloutier said other legal measures can be taken to bar a tenant from the property.
Plus, Cloutier said the rule change would still give the Y’s “at least a month to figure out” whether a tenant will cause problems, because “tenant at will” status is only granted after 30 days of occupancy.
Hagge is unpersuaded by these assurances. He said the week-to-week housing the Y’s provide fills a critical niche in Portland’s housing market, sheltering formerly homeless people who do not yet have the money – or, in some case, the stability in their lives – to afford or commit to renting apartments for six months or a year.
The YMCA has 86 SRO units in its High Street facility that rent for between $106 and $145 per week, depending on the length of stay. It recently completed work on an adjacent 32-unit efficiency apartment building that offers six-month lease terms, but Hagge noted that only one SRO tenant opted to move into the new building.
The population the YMCA serves includes some “very fragile guys right on the edge of having their lives fall apart,” said Hagge. “It’d be a shame to force them into a living situation they can’t function in.”
“I don’t understand why [City Councilor and Housing Committee Chair Karen Geraghty] wants this assault on these poor people forced to live week-to-week,” said Hagge. Without a weekly housing option, the Y’s tenants will have “no place to go,” he said. “Nobody will rent an apartment to them…. It will cause more homelessness.”
Geraghty did not return a call seeking comment. City Councilor Jill Duson, the third member of the Housing Committee and a supporter of the rule change, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Aaron Shapiro, director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Services division, said he doesn’t know whether the rule change will force the Y’s to stop providing weekly rooms.
Steve Huston of the Preble Street Community Advocacy Project, an initiative that helps homeless people get shelter and services, called Hagge’s concerns “ridiculous.”
Huston said the push to stop rooming house and SRO landlords from unfairly evicting tenants began over three years ago, after the YMCA summarily evicted over a dozen residents at once. Since the new rules went into effect in 2004, Huston said there have been far fewer summary evictions citywide.
All landlords have to deal with potentially unruly tenants, Huston said, mentioning college students as an example. Rooming house or SRO tenants should have the same rights as “someone living in a three-bedroom condo on the hill,” he added.
Earlier this year, the board of the YWCA announced it intends to sell its building on Spring Street and relocate elsewhere in Portland. The YWCA also provides short-term shelter to formerly homeless people, as well as an array of social services for women in need. The organization’s shelter and service programs are expected to continue in the new location, though Hagge said the YWCA would be forced to make the same changes the YMCA would make if the housing code is amended.
YWCA officials could not be reached for comment.
Cloutier said he’s not sure how the full council will vote on the amendment. Though he considers Hagge’s concerns groundless, Cloutier noted, “nobody like to beat up on the Y.”