Will Oregon Democrats Betray Renters ?

By Shamus Cooke of Portland, Oregon. Shamus is an organizer for Portland Tenants United.

Oregon’s housing crisis is suffocating the state, and Democrats have the power to fix it. But will they? The Democrat-dominated legislature is discussing pro-renter House Bill 2004, which passed the House but faces a precarious future in the Democrat-led Senate, where the staunchest opponents are also landlords (Democrats need zero votes from Republicans, who are unified against the bill).

House Bill 2004 is simple: it makes rent control legal, allowing local municipalities to craft their own policy (there is currently a statewide preemption). It also makes no-cause evictions illegal, giving tenants basic due process in the eviction process (though it still allows landlords to use for-cause evictions for tenants that don’t pay rent, damage property, break laws, etc).

House Bill 2004 is also ‘revenue neutral’, meaning it would cost taxpayers nothing. In actuality it would likely save taxpayers millions a year, since it would relieve pressure from the homeless crisis by keeping people in their homes.

Less money would be needed for homeless shelters and social services in general, since, as author Matthew Desmond explains in his celebrated book Evicted, poverty is often a consequence of evictions, not the cause.

Who are the Democrats that are biggest barriers to House Bill 2004? Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson—a landlord—is the staunchest opponent, according to lobbyists inside the Capitol. Her district is packed with constituents who are renters, voters who will not be pleased if she ends up voting ‘no’ on HB 2004, or seeks to maim it by removing the rent control provision from the bill (it should be noted that the very notion of a ‘preemption’ is a corporate-driven idea, long championed by the right wing, but recently accepted by some Oregon Democrats).

Rod Monroe is another Senate Democrat and landlord who’s not supporting the bill; he owns a 51 unit complex in renter-heavy east Portland, where voters put him into office. These same voters will think twice in the next election if Monroe votes ‘no’ on HB 2004.

Then there is Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, another landlord who Capitol lobbyists say wants to water down HB 2004—in effect drowning it—before she’ll consider voting yes.

In regard to Burdick’s landlord status being a potential conflict of interest, she was once quoted in Willamette Week as saying “I declare the potential conflicts and I vote for the tenants.” We hope she listens to her own advice and stops acting as a barrier to HB 2004.

Not all Democrats who are landlords oppose the bill. Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson is also a landlord, but she’s a co-sponsor and champion of HB 2004, putting to shame her Senate colleagues.

What do Democrats have to say about opposing HB 2004? One Salem lobbyist said “they’re [Senate Democrats] basically regurgitating the landlord lobby’s talking points.”

One reason why Democrats might like landlord-lobby talking points is that the lobby created the ‘Equitable Housing PAC’, which has poured thousands of dollars into legislators’ election war chests.

One of the key talking points is also the most ridiculous: legislators have actually been quoted saying “rent control hurts renters”, a comment as perplexing as “food stamps harm the hungry” or “homes hurt the homeless”.

The other anti-rent control arguments are equally nonsensical, and follow the awful logic of neoliberal economics which argues “any regulation on the ‘free market’ has unintended consequences”, a savvy yet vapid argument created by the big banks, big corporations, and big landlords that acts as a permanent barrier to any limit on their power.

When Portland Tenants United wanted to debate rent control with the landlord lobby, Multifamily NW, the landlords declined. But a PSU professor took up the challenge, championing the anti-rent control position against tenant organizer Margot Black, who most listeners would agree dominated the debate. Ultimately the anti-rent control arguments dissipate under any scrutiny.

Several Senate Democrats say they would vote ‘yes’ on HB 2004 if the rent control provision was amputated from the bill. Yet few Democrats would say publicly that local municipalities shouldn’t have the power to decide rent control for themselves, since landlord talking points are most effective behind closed doors.

If HB 2004 fails—or is disfigured beyond recognition by amendments—voters won’t soon forget; Portland Tenants United has every intention of reminding them next election.

Oregon is at a historic crossroads, where renters are finally given the chance to get basic rights and cities will finally have the chance to implement rent control if they so desire. If Democratic Senators continue playing political games with tenants rights they’ll be gambling with their political future come next election.

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