Another Day, Another Story of Displaced Renters

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February 22, 2016; Portland Press Herald

The Portland Press Herald story “Nonprofit searching for homes for evicted tenants of Portland apartment complex” reports on the efforts of Shalom House to relocate tenants displaced from 61-69 Grant Street in Portland, Maine, when the owners decided to reap the harvest of profits from Portland’s hot rental market.

Shalom House has focused its efforts on finding units that will accept the housing choice vouchers the agency uses to provide housing for its mentally ill clients. Locating suitable housing in Portland, Maine is not simple. NPQ has already covered the problem of gentrification in “Promoting Affordable Housing Development: A Tale of Two Portlands,” which contrasted the efforts of Portlands on both coasts to cope with rising rents and limited rental housing stock. The Press Herald story makes this point. “So far, options are limited in Portland because high demand for apartments is driving up rents and the real estate market is attracting investment in market-rate and luxury housing.”

Since the original story, the Portland Press Herald has reported that the property owners will forego bringing eviction actions. “After meeting with Mayor Ethan Strimling, [landlord] John Le said he would be flexible with his eviction date since the city has agreed to partner with community groups to relocate the tenants—most of whom are low-income, have mental disabilities, or both—‘within a reasonable time frame.’”

This “settlement” is reminiscent of a similar situation in Pittsburgh late last year at Penn Plaza. “City officials told the [landlords] the city wanted them to rescind the notices, to include some affordable housing in their plans for the site, and to create a fund that would provide financial assistance to help residents move.”

Maybe Mayor Strimling should have taken a harder line? More time for the tenants at 61-69 Grant does not solve the underlying problem of the costs of relocation. Relocation is never easy for tenants, especially for older and disabled tenants. Even at Penn Plaza, where Mayor Peduto helped negotiate with the developer to provide for relocation assistance, the process took an emotional toll for those who had to leave their homes. Having a social service agency support the tenants emotionally is a key factor in their long-term success.

Ideally, a health or social service agency should be providing the human service supports while a professional real estate agent negotiates the terms of a new lease with a new landlord. When the agency’s workers are also the home finders, their ability to be client advocates can be undermined. In an unrelated case last week, a worker told me that her agency could not investigate a case of elder abuse because the agency depended on the accused property manager to help out when there was a relocation crisis. As health and social service agencies are called upon to be de facto real estate agents, more conflicts like this are inevitable. With rental housing a scarce commodity in many urban markets, agencies are obliged to play “go along, get along” in order to keep their clients from becoming homeless. The Portland displacement story provides another lesson for nonprofits about the power of the media as an ally in coping with rental displacement. Having a recognizable “brand” is a key factor. For Shalom House, identifying the tenants as “low income” with “mental disabilities” put a sympathetic frame around the issue for the public. Just last week in NPQ, I contrasted the reprieve provided to the Soup Kitchen nuns in San Francisco with the apparent failure of the Church of St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church to remain in its Fillmore location. The decidedly unconventional congregation that is also a performing arts venue and a cultural institution was just too unique to the public’s attention even in unconventional San Francisco.—Spencer Wells