Rental Housing: a Crisis Becoming a Disaster

By Don MacGillivray

Rent increases as high as 40 percent have been reported last year in Portland. A rent increase of $500 will make even the most satisfied tenant consider moving and some found themselves on the street and homeless.

The rental market is out of control and a significant challenge because so many renters are forced to pay more than the 30 percent of their income for housing.

Tenants are usually innocent bystanders to a housing market in crisis. It is caused by new housing construction falling behind the influx of people relocating to Portland.

Recently the city has grown by 8,000 people a year while about 4,000 new housing units are built annually. In addition, current apartment owners see the opportunity to attract new, higher income tenants and remodel their properties so they can increase the rent. Whole apartment buildings have closed with tenants evicted.

This is a continuation and expansion of the gentrification issue which Portland city planning has deplored for over twenty years. Meanwhile Portland has lost some of its most affordable housing, leaving few options for those that are displaced.

Evictions are part of this problem. Fortunately a landlord cannot evict a tenant during the term of a lease without cause. Portland and Multnomah County do allow no-cause evictions  where a landlord can evict a monthly tenant at any time without reason and there are no limits placed on rent increases. This is troubling for many, but it is devastating for the poor who have little chance of finding a new home at a comparable price.

Recently a 90 day eviction notice period began and landlords started using restraining orders to evict tenants quickly. Many of the evicted tenants do not even show up for the hearing. This is especially true for people that are challenged by their financial condition or their cultural unfamiliarity with the legal system.

When a tenant is evicted it stays on their record making it even more difficult to find another home.

Too often, tenants are desperate when they find themselves in eviction court. The system is a rapid court process and it is often difficult for the tenant to obtain legal representation.

In 2015, the time between notice and eviction was 30 days and now this has been lengthened to 90 days. It is also is necessary now to give 90 days notice if the rent is to be increased by more than five percent.

The social costs due to housing displacement are quite high. An eviction can be caused by a rise in rent, non-payment of rent, a request for repairs,  discrimination, complaints from neighbors or damage.

If one is evicted, getting all or part of their cleaning deposit back is problematic; finding a temporary place to live is difficult; finding a new apartment here is difficult; moving is expensive; payment of first and last month rent plus a cleaning deposit is expensive. A move is likely to reduce one’s standard of living.

The twenty year old Community Alliance of Tenants is a group that seeks to defend the rights of tenants in Portland.

They have rallied in public places and at meetings of the city and county councils to lobby for issues with hundreds of supporters. In an extreme situation, they’ve demonstrated outside a rental office and camped outside the home of a landlord.

This has been covered by the local media in Willamette Week, the Portland Mercury, the Portland Tribune, Street Roots, and other local media sources.

It has even helped defeat a Portland city councilman for the first time since 1992. The newest Portland commissioner, Chloe Eudaly, in addition to Mayor Ted Wheeler and House Speaker Tiny Kotek have promised to address the issues around housing.

In addition, advocates for housing reform have formed Portland Tenants United through a facebook group that has gathered a following of 2,600 in the last two years.

The obvious solution is to have some type of protection against extreme rent increases. Some are calling for a temporary rent freeze. Rent control is often mentioned.

Oregon State Legislature will need to change the law and this is problematic due to the real property interests, but if a solution is not found, housing advocates promise rent strikes.

Landlords are represented by Multifamily Northwest that formed in 2013 from the reorganization of the twenty-five year old Metro Multifamily Housing Association.

This is an advocacy organization that, with other well established housing organizations, promote common political interests. They say rent-based solutions hurt the availability of apartments, reduce the supply of affordable housing, and cause rents to increase.

Local politicians are worried, listening and willing to work for mutually agreeable solutions. Incumbents especially want a fix so housing issues will not hurt their likelihood of reelection.

In January of last year, a study done by the City Club of Portland analyzed the housing affordability issue and made the following recommendations: allow rent regulation; ban no-cause evictions; enact rental licensing and inspections; build subsidized housing; purchase foreclosed buildings; and create a land bank for affordable housing.

Portland Housing Bureau issued the second State of Housing in Portland report at the end of 2016 to provide a comprehensive overview of the affordable housing situation here. Metro issued a report on the Opportunities and Challenges for Equitable Housing that also addresses these issues.

A recently published book, illustrates the plight of the poor in the 21st century American city: “No moral code or ethical principle … can … defend what we have allowed our country to become.” (from Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, Harvard professor and sociologist).

Rental Housing: a Crisis Becoming a Disaster

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