Control Me

The plot thickens on housing and rent control in Oregon.

By Marissa Yang Bertucci

Maybe you’re one of the 40% of Oregonians who rents their home or apartment. You know your one-year lease ends soon, so you exchange sketchy and unsuccessful G-chat conversations with your landlord trying to ascertain whether they will raise rent or evict you. You spend your lunch breaks trolling Craigslist to see if your dream house might be attainable in the event that you get booted. You ponder whether you will ever make three times rent for a place with a bathtub that’s beautiful, not just serviceable.

And it’s dire. Maybe you have kids and you want to make sure they stay in the same school because you’ve read the data that shows how difficult it is for kids to stay on track when you remove stability. Will an untimely eviction force you to move just before state testing? Prom? A breakthrough in their school counseling services? Will you have anywhere to go?

“Marginalized families who have little trust in the school system are best served when long-term relationships are built with schools to repair that trust.”

Many families who are evicted so that landlords can flip the property go to incredible lengths to keep their kid in the same school. I work in a school where families take the bus for two hours from Gresham because they’re finally getting the resources they need from the school.

Marginalized families who have little trust in the school system are best served when long-term relationships are built with schools to repair that trust—it can take a long time for admins and teachers to prove that they’re on the same team as kids and families. And then miracles can happen—families will tell us what they need, and we can connect them to clothing closets, energy resources, food pantries, stuff that translates into long term stability for the entire family. Schools often act as gatekeepers to these kinds of services, and if a family must move, they would be forced in many cases to totally restart the process.

Meanwhile, the US Census Bureau estimates that the Portland Metro area grew by 111 people per day from July 2014 to 2015. Progressive critiques of of gentrification in Portland are both commonplace and common sensical, so I won’t bore you with a treatise about how dire the need for affordable housing is. You know. And so does our government.

As a result of our clear housing crisis, Portland City Council unanimously passed an ordinance in February that would require some landlords to pay the housing costs for tenants who are evicted without cause or whose rents are raised more than 10% in a 12-month period. A more aggressive ordinance could have been brought to the table were it not for Oregon’s longstanding 1985 ban on rent control, itself a response to outdated WWII policies on rent control that weren’t flexible enough to accommodate rapidly changing realities for population and housing.

“This fundamental challenge on a city’s ability to figure its own shit out and employ rent control if they want to is present in this, and most other bills hitting the floor in Oregon.

Now, in 2017, a number of statewide bills regarding housing will hit the floor. For example, Representative Tina Kotek, the queer, bespectacled rising star in the Democrat rankings, sponsored HB 2001. It passed an initial reading and was referred to Human Services and Housing for review in January. This bill, in its own words, “[r]epeals statewide prohibition on city and county ordinances regulating rents, [permits a] city or county to adopt rent stabilization program with certain restrictions, [imposes a] moratorium on rent increases greater than five percent for residential tenancies, with exceptions…[and declares a state of emergency], effective on passage.” This fundamental challenge on a city’s ability to figure its own shit out and employ rent control if they want to is present in this, and most other bills hitting the floor in Oregon.

Most recently, HB 2004, which blocks a landlord’s ability to to issue a no-cause eviction on a month-to-month tenancy after six months of occupancy, passed in the Oregon House 31-27 on April 4. The bill allows for certain exceptions where 90 days’ written notice and a payment of relocation expenses in the amount of a month’s rent would allow a no-cause eviction. It also features that key element of repealing rent control: the bill “[permits] city or county to implement rent stabilization programs for rental of dwelling units.”

In order to be ratified in the State of Oregon, HB 2004 must pass in the Senate as well. It stood for public hearing with great hullaballoo on May 3. In the coming weeks, we will see a vote in a Senate that has a Democratic majority of 17-13—but many of these Dems are moderate and may be difficult to sway.

Opponents fall in line with most conventional arguments against rent control—their supply/demand market logic argues that that more stringent controls on evictions and rent increases would throw too many hoops in front of property owners. As a result, landlords might rinse their hands of the increased regulation, choosing to sell their properties instead of renting them out. Landlords would have little incentive to renovate their properties if they couldn’t pass the cost of repairs onto renters in the form of raised rents. And “risky” tenants might be denied a chance to rent if landlords become pickier, wanting to avoid the messy for-cause eviction process.

Ultimately, some of these harms do come to pass in certain cities, and in others, exactly the opposite happens. An article by Michael Mandel in the ‘89 Brooklyn Law Journal challenged economist conventions that condemn rent control, finding that there wasn’t much evidence to support the idea that rent control leads to worse maintenance. Economists at MIT found in 2012 that getting rid of rent control in Cambridge caused prices to rise significantly over 20 years, about which Ryan Lue concluded, “Removing [rent control] may be a kiss of death of mixed-income neighborhoods.”

I’ll warrant that no city has enacted rent control perfectly, but I’ll also warrant that the increasingly urgent nature of housing crises require stabilization legislation that might inconvenience the market but ultimately do more good than harm. If cities like Portland are willing to start tossing legislation onto the table that smells like rent control, the outdated statewide ban shouldn’t supersede a city’s ability to try shit, see if it works, and then change ordinances if it doesn’t work out. The status quo is deeply untenable. Ride the bus for two hours from Gresham to North Portland so your kid can hang out with their best friends at recess and tell me we don’t deserve to try something new.

Header photo credit: Wootang01 via photopin (license).