LEWISTON – The Downtown Neighborhood Association has endorsed the idea of starting a tenants union here for renters.

It’s among the topics slated for the association’s annual housing forum Thursday.

A tenants union, if it gains support, would likely be modeled after a similar, two-year effort in the state’s largest city.

“Hopefully it’ll give people more power, more rights,” said Dot Treadwell, association president.

She sees a union working as mediator between landlord and tenant “like another option, instead of having to go to court.”

Sometimes renters have little recourse if a landlord asks them to leave, Treadwell said, or raises the rent. “We want the landlords and the tenants to get together instead of the landlords having all the power.”

The Portland Tenants Union started in January 2002 after a year of organizing, according to the group’s treasurer, Ed Democracy.

Democracy, who legally changed his last name, said members have held a tenants rights workshop, held debates about the benefits of price controls versus more new housing and created a worksheet for renters to document complaints and action or inaction.

That union hasn’t actually intervened in any landlord-tenant disputes, Democracy said; it’s not set up for that. He believes the group’s influence has been more subtle.

One man, a tenant in an old, five-story hotel, called to complain about “drippy, gooey things” coming from the ceiling. Democracy said the man informed the landlord, who responded by treating him like a problem tenant and telling him his rent would have to go up to cover costs of the repair.

Democracy said the man was given a documentation form and Democracy videotaped the apartment. On his way out, he said, the building super suggested Democracy pass the forms out to everyone.

The ceiling got fixed, and the rent resolved. “He felt it certainly made a difference,” Democracy said.

His goal is getting documentation forms to all renters in Portland and putting them on the group’s Web site, www.Portlandtenants.org, to download. “It begins a paper trail that’s more than just somebody’s notebook,” he said.

They charge $5 for annual dues, but waive the fee for some. The Portland Tenants Union has less than 100 members; regular meetings are the last Monday of the month.

The group frequently takes calls from people in other cities around Maine about starting a union, he said. On its Web site, the group has already created a page for a Maine Tenants Union, to offer oversight of smaller unions. It’s just a concept in need of grant money for now, Democracy said.

“It seems like there’s enormous potential and serious need,” he said, later adding: “There’s safety in numbers. … The energy changes when you’re not just a lone person dealing with a landlord or legal system.”

Democracy’s group has created an acronym for unresponsive landlords – PARIAHS: Property Agents Reducing Integrity & Affordability of Housing Stock. But Democracy cautions that most landlords, like most tenants, are conscientious.

Lewiston could start its own union, he said, by organizing meetings, creating bylaws and picking a board. For now the fledgling idea has an Internet site with an e-mail address – [email protected] – but little else.

Thursday’s forum will also have representatives from the Caleb Foundation and POWER, the Portland Organization to Win Economic Rights, Treadwell said.

The evening starts at 5 p.m. with a potluck dinner at the Multi-Purpose Center in Birch Street.



Facebook comments