The Maine Millennial: Don’t blame people for trying to take housing into their own hands


Despite being a super hip and definitely extremely cool youngish person who lives in Maine, I don’t actually live or work in Portland. I don’t plan on ever moving to the city, mostly because I like being able to see stars at night. Also, my dog kind of hates people. We are happy out here in the woods.

So I don’t feel comfortable telling people how they should vote on the Portland referendum questions. But I wanted to talk a little bit about the questions themselves and the issues that have led to them. I’m not a political scientist, but it seems to me that they tend to get used more when people feel their elected officials aren’t responding to the needs and desires of the community. Citizen-initiated referendums definitely have their place. They are blunt instruments, good for population-wide up-or-down, yea-or-nay questions. Their structure can often ameliorate some of the effects of gerrymandering.

In an ideal world, housing policy would be hashed out and written up by elected officials. Trying to make housing policy by referendum is like trying to apply eyeshadow with a broom. But we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? All the Portland city councilors say the right things and seem like very nice people, but the rents just keep rising and apartments keep getting harder and harder to find. Homelessness keeps rising. (Gee, you think maybe those things are related?) Things are probably pretty good if you’re a property owner in Portland already. But if you’re not? I can’t blame people for trying to take matters into their own hands. It’s not a coincidence that three out of the five citizen-initiated questions involve housing. (And one is about wages, which, you guessed it, haven’t kept up with housing prices.) Right now, the cheapest single-family home I could find listed for sale in Portland is $315,000. The cheapest condo is $295,000. My boyfriend and I are an ed tech and a secretary. No way could we buy a “starter home” in Portland.

I also have intensely mixed feelings about short-term rentals, a market dominated by Airbnb. In theory, of course, they’re great. I’m fully in favor of people easily renting out a room in their house, or for snowbirds to help pay their two mortgages by renting out their Maine home whenever they are in Florida.

And they are fun for visitors. My family stayed in an Airbnb in Old Town this past spring when we all went up for my sister’s graduation from UMaine. It was a lovely old house, comfortable and well-decorated, and it gave us a much homier environment to spend time together as a family in. (Can you imagine trying to have a board game night in a hotel room?)

But my mom also struck up a conversation with the neighbors. And they weren’t happy about the Airbnb situation. Strangers were constantly coming and going in their residential neighborhood, partying, making noise at all hours of the night and not picking up after their dogs. The owner of the Airbnb wasn’t local. This Old Town property was one of a handful of homes she owned and operated as Airbnbs. She had no connection to the neighborhood and, therefore, no incentive to make her guests behave. It was purely a moneymaking thing. I’m sure she could have also turned a profit by renting it out as a regular residential unit. But probably not as much profit. And that’s the root of so many of Portland’s issues – housing and otherwise – at the moment, isn’t it? Everyone wants to maximize their profit.

I’m a homeowner myself now (since my first winter hasn’t hit yet, I’m definitely still in the honeymoon phase), and I also have mixed feelings about the fact that I am going to be benefiting from government subsidies that renters do not benefit from – the mortgage interest deduction and, after a year of occupancy, the homestead exemption. We don’t tend to think of these benefits as welfare or subsidies, but they are. You can’t deduct rent from your taxes or get a break for being a long-term tenant. I don’t know. Maybe it’s me being a bleeding heart liberal as usual, but I have an affordable home in a neighborhood that I love, and I am no more or less deserving of that than anyone else.

I’m not a city mouse by any means, but I do love Portland. I spent most of the days during my childhood there. I went to St. Patrick’s School on Congress Street from kindergarten through eighth grade. It is now condos. I went to Catherine McAuley High School on Stevens Avenue for high school. It is now condos. I went to St. Luke’s Cathedral on State Street for church every Sunday. It is not condos – yet. The way things are going, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried.

I’m pretty sure if things keep up the way they are going, the only people living in Portland will be those who are poor enough to qualify for its subsidized housing units and those rich enough to afford the fancy condos.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial


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