PORTLAND, Maine — Voters passed four of five measures progressive activists got onto the ballot Tuesday, including one that will push the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and cap increases on rent.
The other measures will bolster an existing ban on the public use of facial recognition software and enact new environmental standards for publicly funded housing developments.
A fifth measure, an effort to put 400 short-term rental units back on the housing market, failed.
With results from more absentee votes still to be reported shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Portland voters appeared primed to pass a separate initiative that would remove a cap of 20 on the number of recreational cannabis licenses that can be issued in the city.
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Hoping to bypass a city council that some believe has not done enough for working-class people in Portland, advocates pushed for the progressive fixes to wage, housing and environmental policies through voter referendums.
Mayor Kate Snyder and all but one member of the city council publicly opposed the five measures last month. Officials were “not necessarily opposed to the policy goals of the ballot questions, but rather the process and context in which they were developed,” the mayor said.
Referendum Question A will gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, setting the wage for tipped workers to 50 percent of that amount. It will also raise the city’s hazard-pay minimum wage to $22.50 during states of emergency. The measure’s victory makes Portland the second Maine city after Rockland to pass a $15 minimum wage policy in Tuesday’s election.
Referendum Question B will strengthen a ban on the use of facial recognition surveillance technology by police and other public officials. Studies have found that the technologies may promote racial profiling and disparities in criminal justice.
Passage of referendum Question C will enact new requirements on housing developments in Portland, including a rule that housing projects receiving public funding be built to up-to-date environmental standards and with solar-ready roofs, and that workers on the projects receive additional pay and training. Advocates called the proposal a “Green New Deal” for sustainable building.
Affordable housing advocates, including Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, found the measure to be poorly written, however. The agency opposed the measure on the grounds that its passage would make it harder to push new development to outer boroughs.
“There are hundreds of affordable apartments in the pipeline in Portland, and we’re concerned that they simply won’t be built if Question C passes,” Payne said in October.
Question D, a rent-control measure, will cap rent increases to the rate of inflation and extend to 90 days the amount of notice landlords have to give tenants they are seeking to evict. The measure applies to units owned by larger property owners, exempting dwellings of four or fewer units where the owner also resides.
Question E would have banned non-owner occupied short-term rental units in Portland, returning the properties to a real-estate market plagued by rising costs and housing insecurity. Airbnb, the country’s second-most valuable tech startup, spent $125,000 into the race to stop the initiative, which was opposed at the local level by a PAC called the Portland Landlords and Tenants Coalition headed by Chris Korzen.
The initiatives faced considerable opposition from national lobbyists and local power brokers, who collectively spent close to $1 million in an effort to quash the measures.
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Some voters, like city councilors, made their decisions on procedural grounds. Byron Davis, a 47-year-old electrical technician in Portland who identifies as a libertarian conservative, said he thought all of the measures “would be better decided by the city council.”
But rent has gotten out of hand in the past five years, said Kamal Abdirisaq, an 18-year-old University of Southern Maine student who lives in the Bayside/Kennedy Park neighborhood.
Abdirisaq said that a lot of other people of color he knows in that area have had to move because rents have increased while wages have not.
“It’s being gentrified right now, kind of like how the East End [neighborhood] was 10 years ago,” Abdirisaq said. “I’m scared the same thing is going to happen to where I live. I’m pretty worried about that.”