Big Win for Tenants in Portland Has Statewide Implications

By Margot Black of Portland, Oregon. Margot is a mother of three, college mathematics instructor, and an organizer with Portland Tenants United.

Portland just did a really big thing, and it’s a really big deal.

Effective immediately, landlords who choose to displace their tenants with a no-cause eviction or an unaffordable rent increase of 10% or more will be required to pay their tenant’s relocation expenses, depending on the size of their unit. Displaced tenants will receive a moving expense benefit of $2900 for a studio, $3300 for a 1-bedroom, $3900 for a 2-bedroom, and $4500 for a 3 bedroom or bigger. This landmark tenant protection, arguably the most far reaching and power-balancing regulation in the state’s history, was spearheaded by new City Commissioner and renter, Chloe Eudaly, whose call for a rent freeze during her campaign helped her defeat the incumbent candidate, and was co-sponsored by new Mayor, Ted Wheeler, who also ran on a tenant rights platform. Both candidates were strongly influenced by the work and power of Portland Tenants United, a rapidly growing tenant union empowering tenants to challenge the status quo. In particular, providing tenants with relocation assistance when they are displaced by no fault of their own, is a key component of Portland Tenant’s United’s Tenants Bill of Rights.

This historic ordinance is a game-changer for tenants, especially during a deepening housing crisis. When a no-cause eviction is tantamount to an eviction from Portland, and daily headlines tell of a burgeoning population of “newly-homeless”, when family shelters are overflowing, and rent increases are breaking city and national records, all tenants live in fear of the dreaded letter on their door from their landlord. When a landlord can so casually displace their tenants, without accountability or consequence, the tenant dare not question their landlord’s unreasonable demands and illegal fees, lack of regular maintenance, or intimidating treatment. A strong financial disincentive to force tenants out of their homes and communities means that tenants can now breath a little easier.

When landlords are required to acknowledge and share in the real and significant cost of forced displacement, they will certainly pause before punishing “annoying” tenants with a (definitely retaliatory or discriminatory) no-cause eviction, and they will think twice about price-gouging their tenants with a 30% rent increase to bring their rent “up to market value” when they know that their tenants will not be able to afford it without making major and consequential financial sacrifices. And when the landlord makes that choice anyway (because the ordinance does not prevent them from doing so), the displaced tenant will actually have the upfront financial resources needed to find and move into new housing; a win not just for the tenant who might now be able to dodge homelessness or certain financial crisis, but also for the landlord who can take comfort in the fact that their tenant will be much more likely to leave the unit clean, empty and on time, as the tenant will actually have the financial resources to do so. It’s actually a double win for the landlord now that their tenants will be sure not to do anything to warrant a for-cause eviction, lest they give their landlord the easy opportunity to displace them without paying relocation. Tenants now have a stronger incentive than ever to pay their rent on time, befriend the neighbors, take good care of their homes—including reporting minor maintenance issues before they become major, and follow the rules laid out in the rental agreement. Behold: A stick is converted to a carrot!

Predictably, most landlords don’t really see it this way. The relocation ordinance was opposed mightily by area landlords and realtors. “Good landlords”, supposedly beloved by their happy long-term tenants living in well-maintained units, to whom they are happily charging under market rent, regaled city commissioners with plea after plea to retain the unfettered right to issue no-cause evictions and $400 rent increases. It would be impossible to be a compassionate and fair landlord with the ability to displace and price gouge their tenants without consequence. But their vehement opposition was no match for the renters of Portland (nearing 50% of the population) and their home-owning allies calling for landlords to acknowledge their role and responsibility in stabilizing our communities. City Council was so packed with supporters of the ordinance that a standing-room only overflow room was opened across the street. Over 100 people signed up to testify, mostly those in support of the ordinance. While those opposed to the ordinance were exclusively landlords (many of whom did not disclose that they were also real-estate brokers), those in favor included teachers, doctors, members of the faith and labor community, government officials, lawyers, homeowners, and yes, even some realtors, developers, and landlords, both big and small.

The urgent need for stronger tenant protections does not end at Portland’s borders. The impacts of our unregulated rental housing market are being felt throughout the entire Portland metro area, as well as Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Bend, Southern Oregon, Hood River and up and down the coast. Tenants across the state are suffering from Oregon’s lack of tenant protections and a post-recession boom in real estate speculation. Fortunately, Portland’s victory came just one day after Oregon’s legislative session commenced, where strong statewide tenant protections are one of the chief priorities for Speaker Tina Kotek.

The two bills (including several versions of each) being considered by legislature this session, and championed by the labor and community coalition, Stable Homes for Oregon Families, will address no-cause evictions and rent control. The first aims to eliminate no-cause evictions, creating a just-cause eviction standard that will apply to tenants statewide, rather than require local jurisdictions to come up with their own policies. The latter simply asks legislators to overturn the ban on local rent control, allowing cities and counties to enact their own rent stabilization policies. Unsurprisingly, both pieces of legislation face formidable opposition.

For the landlord lobby, legislation to overturn the ban on rent control and ending no-cause evictions, was laughably unthinkable this time last year, or anytime in the last 30 years. But by late summer, largely owing to Portland Tenants United’s willingness to confront the lobby, ongoing demand for a rent freeze, exposure of blatant abuse by landlords, and a successful movement to empower tenants to demand change, the calls for action became too loud to ignore. The unthinkable became the inevitable. In a letter to members of landlord industry groups, titled “Owners of Apartment Complexes Need to Defend Ourselves” the birth of the disingenuously named “Equitable Housing PAC” was announced, and the gauntlet was thrown. At MultiFamily NW’s “fall apartment breakfast”, landlord and lawyer and lobbyist John DiLorenzo didn’t mince words: “This is war.” They have since stuffed their war chests with almost $400K to hand over to any lawmaker dedicated to preserving the exploitation and abuse of Oregon’s tenants.

Absent sufficient landlord push-back, radical tenant groups seek to persuade our legislators to enact rapid-fire changes to our housing laws like rent control, prohibition of "no-cause" rental terminations, and long rent increase notice periods.

Progress in Portland is often the harbinger of change in Salem. In 2015, in response to the renter state of emergency declared by the Community Alliance of Tenants, Portland took the then unprecedented step of enacting its own “renter protections”, requiring 90-day notices on no-cause evictions and rent increases above 5%. In response, the legislature took similarly unprecedented action and without convening the (now defunct) landlord–tenant coalition—former gatekeeper of all middling changes to landlord tenant law—passed a similar slate of statewide tenant protections. This is evidence of both the power of a growing housing justice movement, and of the force that Portland has when it takes the first step to enact change.

Renter SOS

On the other hand, Salem, it is said, hates to be forced to legislate on issues perceived as primarily “Portland problems” (another great reason to lift the ban and give Portland its regulatory tools back). It absolutely critical that tenants and their allies from across the state make their voices heard, and demand that their legislators support robust tenant protections, without qualification. Until last week, most tenants outside of Portland had no idea that change was even possible; the notion that they could feel secure in their homes and communities was but a whimsical fantasy, a right reserved only for those willing and able to take on a 30 year debt with Too-Big-to-Fail-Bank-of-America. But Portland’s new ordinance has changed the legislative landscape overnight. Tenants are waking up, and galvanized, are organizing and mobilizing and following the lead of Portland Tenants United by forming their own regional tenants unions, such as newly formed Southern Oregon Tenants Union and Eugene Tenants United. This momentum will flow directly to Salem where pro-tenant legislators will be heroes, and ambivalent or opposing legislators will be forced to acknowledge the growing power of tenants (a far bigger part of their constituency than landlords) who are waking up and rising up, and will no longer accept the status quo. Both types of legislators should find inspiration in Portland’s city commissioners who showed courage and resolve as they stood firm in the face the tired arguments, false narratives, and empty threats of the landlord lobby.

While the Portland ordinance is a victory to be celebrated, this is no time to rest. The legislative session is now in full swing, and we must continue and expand the push. Pushing hard for a couple of months can win us decades of dignity in our homes. Town halls must be be filled with families, labor, faith and community groups holding signs in favor of tenant protections. Lobby days must be flooded with tenants and allies demanding stable homes and stable communities. The phone lines must be flooded, the mail bags overflowing. More tenants should organize to form more tenant unions. Hello, Bend and Coos Bay and Scappoose Tenants United!? Any legislator who take money from the Equitable Housing PAC or who plans to vote against tenants and stable communities should know that they will be held accountable, and that they can be replaced.

It is entirely possible that a new day for tenants is on the horizon, one where housing security and dignity is a reality, not fantasy. Where no-cause evictions and $400 rent increases are relegated to the history books along with other legislative injustices that we should be similarly ashamed of. But it will take focus, coalition building and mobilization around the state to make this a reality. Historic statewide protections for renters can be won this year. Families and vulnerable members of our communities can finally feel defended from the grinding insecurity of the housing crisis. When we fight, we win.

guest column

connect with blueoregon