Phil Harriman (left) and Ethan Strimling (right). Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Phil: If I understand correctly, there is a fifth question on the ballot in Portland that we have yet to discuss. This one is about short-term rentals.

Ethan: That is correct. We have debated in these pages the minimum wage (Question A), Green New Deal (Question C), and rent control (Question D). We never actually discussed the facial surveillance ban (Question B) in this column, but we both voiced strong support for it on our podcast.

Phil: So let’s take up Question E, “An Act to Restrict Short Term Rentals.” Why don’t you quickly tell people what it does?

Ethan: Sure. In a nutshell, it will ban short-term rentals in units the owner doesn’t live in, but will permit unlimited short-term rentals if you own and live in the unit you want to rent out.

Phil: Explain to me why the government should be able to discriminate between different types of property owners? As long as what the owner is doing is safe, why shouldn’t I be able to do whatever I want with the property?

Ethan: Because the choice you are making has an impact on the community, in the same way that you can’t have a pig farm in downtown Yarmouth, but you could have one where other farms are allowed.

Phil: I have always felt that the anti-bovine lobby was way too powerful. But tell me, what is the impact on the community, if I can rent out the house I live in, but not the one I own right next door or attached?

Ethan: Right now in Portland, there are 400 units of short-term housing units that are not owner occupied that could be long-term housing. That equals almost 2.5 percent of the city’s rental housing market.

Phil: But that is not the property owner’s fault. If the council hasn’t created enough opportunity for housing supply to meet demand, then they need to get some of those laws off the books. I assure you, if there are people who will pay for an apartment, someone will build it, if given the chance.

Ethan: I appreciate your faith in local government, but sadly the Portland City Council has failed for 10 years to confront the affordable housing crisis. And one of the ways they failed is by not getting a grip on short-term rentals.

Phil: Um, no offense, but weren’t you mayor for four of those 10 years?

Ethan: Indeed I was, and no offense taken. My greatest failure as Mayor was that I was unable to convince my colleagues to stand up to the real estate industry. I have no doubt that failure is one of the strongest reasons all these referendums are on the ballot.

Phil: But you voted for the short-term regulations currently on the books.

Ethan: I did, and we twice tried to amend them to something more balanced. In fact, even city staff recommended restrictions much closer to what are being proposed in this initiative. But again, the real estate industry always wins with that body.

Phil: I can understand people in neighborhoods being opposed to allowing what amount to hotels opening in residential neighborhoods, but if you bought your home under rules allowing for short-term rentals, it seems inappropriate to take that away now.

Ethan: Except, it wasn’t until 2017 that short-term rentals were even allowed. So most people bought their homes in neighborhoods that they expected would have only long-term residents.

Phil: I imagine if the council changed the zoning where I live and all of a sudden a bed and breakfast opened up next door, I, too, would be annoyed.

Ethan: So, how would you vote?

Phil: I don’t buy your argument that short-term rental owners bear the responsibility for the housing crisis, but I see your point about the disturbance of a daily change in your neighbor if you live next to an apartment or condo. So I would vote yes, but look to the council to tweak it in the new year to allow single family homes to rent out as they see fit.

Ethan: Fair enough. So I am a yes on all five and you are a yes on two.

Phil: Direct democracy can be a beautiful thing.

Phil Harriman, a former town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth, is the founding partner of Lebel & Harriman, a financial services firm. Ethan Strimling, a former mayor and state senator from Portland, is the president of Swing Hard. Turn Left, which promotes progressive policy at the local, state and national levels.