The newest fight for state-level tenant protections was ignited by an old pamphlet.
Oregonian reporter Gordon Friedman discovered the fundraising pamphlet, created by the local landlord lobby group More Housing Now (MHN), circulating City Hall offices earlier this month. In an August 3 story, Friedman unpacked the plans outlined in the document—plans that derail tenant protection policies at both the city and state level—and its criticisms of Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who were singled out for allegedly ignoring landlords’ concerns. According to MHN’s pamphlet, meant for campaign donors, the group had a $2 million fundraising goal to reach prior to the state’s 2019 legislative session.
Tenant advocacy groups clapped back. “Anti-renter protections groups have set a bullseye on statewide renter protections,” reads an email sent by the Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) on August 5. “We must band together to send a strong message to our elected leaders that protecting community stability over the interests of a select few is absolutely critical.” If just 10 percent of all Oregon renters donated $14 to CAT, the messaged claimed, they’d surpass MHN’s fundraising goal and “send that message.”
According to MHN spokesman John McIsaac, that pamphlet was printed in December 2017, and MHN’s campaign to fight renter protections has “morphed a little” since then. But, he said, the group’s fundraising efforts have only intensified in recent months. “We’re in aggressive fundraising mode,” says McIsaac.
The fight was simmering long before Friedman found the pamphlet. Both tenants’ rights groups and landlord organizations have been quietly gearing up for a fight since 2017, when the Oregon Senate failed to pass a sweeping tenant protection bill. Now, as we creep towards another legislative session, what can we expect that fight to look like?
Last year’s legislative clash focused one bill: House Bill 2004, which would have allowed cities and counties in Oregon to establish rent control policies and limit landlords’ ability to issue no-cause evictions. But Senate Democrats agreed to drop the rent control provision in order to appease skeptical party members like Senator Rod Monroe, who owns an apartment complex in East Portland. The bill still died on the senate floor, thanks in part to MHN’s tenacious lobbying.
As we approach the February 1 start of Oregon’s 2019 session, the political landscape has changed. Monroe’s inaction on HB 2004 lost him a re-election bid, when voters replaced him with renters’ rights advocate Shemia Fagan. Portland has since passed an ordinance requiring all landlords to cover relocation costs for tenants who either receive a no-cause eviction or face a substantial rent hike, and a number of other tenant protection policies are headed to a city council vote.
These mounting changes coincide with a shakeup within MHN. “Our member organizations have disparate agendas,” says McIsaac. While MHN’s website warns that weakened tenant screening laws will stick landlords with drug addicts and sex offenders and that security deposit restrictions will force landlords to sell, McIssac says the organization is only focusing on one issue moving forward: fighting rent control.
Oregon has banned rent control since 1985. In the last few years, affordable housing advocates—including Commissioner Eudaly—have called on state legislatures to lift the ban to allow cities and counties the opportunity to cap local rents. The hope is that these rent limits will bring stability to tenants who are at risk of being displaced by potential rent hikes.
Landlords and developers argue that rent restrictions would effectively freeze all new development of affordable housing. They claim that any rental units exempt from such controls would be forced to increase their rents. In short, strengthening tenants’ protections they say.
“We do not accept that false trade-off,” writes Madeline Kovacs, leader of the affordable housing advocacy group Portland for Everyone, in an email to the Mercury. “Making it legal to build enough homes for Portlanders to live in is a different issue than tenant protections. We don’t have to choose only one or the other, even though the landlord lobby would love for Portlanders to believe that we do.”
McIsaac says these rent caps will ultimately impact the mom-and-pop landlords who might have to sell their investment properties if they can’t bring in enough rent. But what would happen to those same small property managers if the market is oversaturated with housing, forcing rents down? “I don’t have an answer to that,” McIsaac says. “I wish I did.”
Jamey Duhamel, Eudaly’s policy director, acknowledges the strain that rent control could place on landlords.
“Sure, there may be some turnover in the market, and small-time landlords may no longer choose to be in the business if they feel it’s not lucrative,” Duhamel says. “That’s their choice, and someone new will fill their place.”
Those lobbyists appear ready for a fight. In a June letter, Thomas Brenneke, the president of Guardian Real Estate and an MHN organizer, writes that MHN “expects a new challenge to the rent control preemption during the 2019 legislative session and will mount a vigorous fight to defeat it again.”
The group’s campaign war chest, however, doesn’t reflect this vigor. So far this year, MHN’s political action committee has collected $206,000. But a good portion of that has been handed out to candidates (like a recent $2,500 donated to Portland City Council candidate Loretta Smith), leaving the group with $23,000 to put toward updated pamphlets, legislative meetings, campaign events, and other lobbying efforts. The campaign hasn’t recorded any donations since May.
It’s unknown how much CAT’s new fundraising effort has raised, since nonprofits are not required to report donations to the state. Katrina Holland, director of CAT, says the funds raised will help guarantee that tenants and tenant advocates will get facetime with state legislators by covering transportation costs, translators, and daycare. It will also fuel the organization’s lobbying power in Salem.
But at this point in Portland’s housing crisis, city staffers see no reason to wait for state lawmakers to pass policies. City staffers plan on getting new tenants’ rights proposals before city council long before the Oregon Legislature is in session. One proposal, which restricts landlords’ ability to reject prospective tenants for their criminal history, credit score, and a number of other factors, is scheduled for a September 20 hearing.
“The time to act is now,” says Duhamel. “Well, the time to act was 10 years ago... but here we are.”