Sherri Lysy stands outside her Washburn Avenue apartment in Portland on Monday Feb. 1, 2021. Lysy is trying to form a tenants union with other city residents whose rent went up during the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — In normal times, working at one of the city’s most popular restaurants had its perks. Sherri Lysy made a solid income at Duckfat, a popular Old Port eatery, allowing her to live comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment on the edge of town since 2017.

But as pandemic-induced strain fractured the restaurant industry, workers like Lysy are in precarious situations. Now furloughed, Lysy, 34, has spent the past several months laboring instead how to stop questionable rent hikes at her Portland apartment.

Last August, the Portland company who manages her apartment for its owner told Lysy that rent would jump from $850 to $975 on Nov. 1, 2020.

Though she finds rent hikes made during a pandemic ethically dubious, she had little recourse to fight it. But when she got a second round of hikes — weeks after Portland voters comfortably passed a rent-control referendum — something didn’t add up.

Sherri Lysy lives in this three-story apartment building on Washburn Avenue apartment in Portland. Lysy is trying to form a tenants union with other city residents whose rent went up during the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

She told Foreside Real Estate Management, which manages her unit, that the increases didn’t make sense with the new law. They told her to keep paying the higher rent while lawyers contest the referendum’s legality in court — a process that could take months.

That’s when she formed the Foreside Tenants Union.

As Portland residents wait out legal challenges to progressive laws passed in November, vulnerable renters like Lysy have formed tenants unions to help others like them apply new protections despite messaging from landlords and property management companies.

The protections afforded by the new ordinance have been recognized by the city and became effective on Dec. 6, 2020. A provision states that rent charged in January 2021 must be equal to the amount charged in June 2020. The ordinance prohibits rent increases exceeding 10 percent and mandates that officials convene a rent board to mediate disputes between tenants and owners. Rental rates can only be raised once a year.

After it passed, Sherri Lysy thought her monthslong struggle with her landlord would be over.

That wasn’t the case. On Dec. 15, 2020 she received another letter alerting her that rent would jump from $975 to $1,100 in January. Including the $125 increase she weathered a month prior, she was now asked to pay nearly 30 percent more than she had in the summer.

Meanwhile, the pandemic shunted Lysy’s income source. Duckfat, the object of foodie obsessions near and far, went takeout-only in the summer as the pandemic kneecapped the tourist season. When virus cases ramped up in November, Lysy’s hours were cut to part-time. She was furloughed last month for the foreseeable future.

She also wasn’t alone. Foreside told Stephanie Sansonetti, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Lysy’s building on Washburn Ave., that her rent too would be raised after the election from $950 to $1,100.

Sansonetti pushed back, telling Foreside that this contradicted the language of the new ordinance, which mandates that rent stay fixed at the same price point that it was last June. Foreside disagreed and threatened her with a 7-day eviction notice if she didn’t pay rent in full.

Sansonetti, who also works at Duckfat, faced similar income issues over the last year. It wasn’t hard for her and Lysy to find common ground, laying the foundation for the Foreside Tenants Union.

Jeffrey Martin, the president of Foreside Real Estate Management, said that they are in compliance with the new ordinance for all units they are contracted to manage in Portland. Martin could not confirm the accuracy of the proposed rent increases because Foreside took over Lysy’s building in October from the owner. The company had “not been involved in setting rent levels” at Lysy’s building but audited it in December to set the rents back to June 1.

“Our company is in full support of tenant committees and developing and keeping healthy lines of communication between tenants, management and landlords,” Martin said.

Pushing through a housing crisis

The impulse for Portlanders to form tenants unions has emerged from the same conditions that got rent-control on the ballot. As the pandemic took hold in March, Mayor Kate Snyder issued property owners a sternly worded suggestion to not raise rent or evict people who were financially impacted by the pandemic.

The advice had no legal heft, and it didn’t universally land. Many commercial landlords didn’t budge on rent. Some residential ones worked out agreements with their tenants, halting rent increases and working with tenants to secure state rent relief funds. Others have increased rents despite the pandemic, and have sought ways around a federal moratorium preventing evictions for nonpayment of rent.

Lysy and Sansonetti aren’t the only rent-strapped food industry workers who hoped to find relief in the new ordinance.

KT Trenbeath, 29, was furloughed from the restaurant Cong Tu Bot on March 15, 2020. They live with two other roommates in a three-unit apartment building owned by an out-of-state landlord and managed by Bellport Property Management.

K.T. Trenbeath (left) and Shaughn Flynn stand outside their Valley Street apartment in Portland on Tuesday. The pair, along with other city renters, are attempting to form a tenants union. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Those roommates didn’t lose work, so Trenbeath wasn’t able to apply for state rent-relief programs, which factor total household income in the applications. Trenbeath tried negotiating rental assistance through Bellport for months. The landlord didn’t budge much, raising rent in July, and Trenbeath felt “bullied” in the process.

When the referendum passed, Trenbeath was relieved. In December, they sent an email to Bellport reminding them that January rents should be the same as last June’s, and the difference should be reimbursed to the tenant.

Bellport didn’t see it that way. The property management company contested that the people’s referendum was “attempting to supersede a private contract between two parties,” according to an email they sent to Trenbeath on Dec. 31, and might not hold up in court.

“Please continue paying the mutually agreed upon rent of $1,825, and we will make adjustments if deemed necessary once we have more information,” the Bellport principal wrote in an email shared with the BDN.

Trenbeath felt discouraged. The referendum had already been recognized by the City. More broadly, of course everyone was struggling during the pandemic, but not everyone was struggling with the same resources or assets.

“This law was written for people like me to protect us during this totally unplanned pandemic that has completely ruined my financial security and job security,” Trenbeath said.

Renters ask for help

At this point in their respective battles, Lysy and Trenbeath made official complaints with the city’s housing office. They also reached out to People First Portland, the progressive coalition whose efforts secured the rent control referendum on the ballot in the first place.

Jack O’Brien, a professor of statistics at Bowdoin College and an organizer with People First Portland, told Lysy and Trenbeath that the organization could connect them with renters in similar situations. He had heard plenty from them through forming People First Portland’s rent board, which had assembled to make sure that the City would follow through with convening theirs as required by the referendum.

Three months removed from the election, the city’s rent board is now slowly taking shape. Officials have received “about 24 applications” for the City’s rent board and will begin conducting interviews on Feb. 23.

People First Portland have ceded their efforts to the city’s, but the process yielded roughly 50 tenants asking if recent rent increases were legal under the new ordinance. Each tenant situation differs and some disputes can be chalked up to misunderstandings, but O’Brien cited five property management companies having recurring or severe cases.

Many of those companies claim to have received that guidance from the Southern Maine Landlord Association, a membership-based advocacy group for landlords and property owners, including Bellport and Foreside. An attorney for the association did not answer a question about legal advice given to landlords, but the group filed a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court last week seeking to block the City’s implementation of the ordinance passed by voters, saying that the provisions “violate [property owners’] constitutionally protected due process rights” and “exceed the permissible scope of the municipal citizen initiative power.” There is no timetable set for court hearings.

In early January, Bellport backed down. On Jan. 6, they wrote Trenbeath saying they had been informed by the Southern Maine Landlord Association “that it wasn’t clear that the rents should be rolled back,” but the City had just informed them that it does not plan to change its interpretation of the law.

K.T. Trenbeath (left) Shaughn Flynn and their dog Kelso stand on their Valley Street porch in Portland on Tuesday. The pair, along with other city renters, are attempting to form a tenants union. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Reached for comment, Bellport President Dan Blake said that the company is currently adhering to all of the City’s interpretations of the ordinance, and have assisted tenants with economic hardship by “providing them with guidance on rent relief programs, unemployment, payment arrangements with landlords and even rent reductions in some cases.”

By that time, Trenbeath had already decided to form the Bellport Tenants Union.

In both Lysy and Trenbeath’s cases, the unions are pretty new. But as the battle over the city’s progressive policies continues, they hope that others in financial hardship can get support going toe to toe with property owners.

“I really feel like I would have been bullied every which way if I didn’t know that I had the legal standing and people to back me up,” Trenbeath said.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated when Duckfat switched to takeout-only dining.