Eviction Wars

Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Doug Brown
Portland Mercury

Rents continue to skyrocket. People continue to get evicted. Poor residents and people of color continue to be pushed out of the city. People are moving here faster than new units can be built.

And now the divide between tenant advocates and the landlord lobby is greater than ever, with no-cause evictions and the state ban on local jurisdictions implementing rent control taking center stage. No-cause evictions are a favorite tool of landlords to cheaply and efficiently bring in higher-paying renters without a potentially lengthy court process, and a bane for tenant advocates unhappy that it’s legal for landlords to boot otherwise lease-compliant renters for no documented reason other than personal choice.

And no-cause eviction policy is why a political, lobbying, and public relations battle is brewing at the capitol, with landlord groups warning their members that “powerful,” “radical,” and “confrontational” tenant groups “have the ear” of politicians like House Speaker Tina Kotek and Gov. Kate Brown (Kotek has introduced bills that so-called “radical” groups like Portland Tenants United support). It’s also why tenant groups are so concerned that landlords are consolidating and raising money to “buy off” other politicians so they can keep raking in profits from poor and middle-class renters.

When the legislative session opens three weeks from now in Salem, it will be just the second time in more than three decades the state legislature will meet to discuss changes to landlord-tenant law that were not first proposed by the Landlord-Tenant Coalition. The loose assembly of landlord groups and tenant advocates—that’s existed since the early 1980s to compromise on proposed rental housing law—broke up in the second half of 2016.

“Tenant advocates got together and we said, ‘Okay, just-cause [evictions] is our number one issue and we’re not going to talk about anything else’—what can we get landlords to agree to for ‘just cause’?” said Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) Executive Director Katrina Holland. “We’re essentially sitting here watching as communities and neighborhoods are bleeding right before our eyes.”

Following some back-and-forth, and after landlord groups installed notorious landlord lobbyist and Portland attorney John DiLorenzo as co-chair of the coalition with veto power, Holland says, “All of a sudden we get news that they’re not going to talk about just-cause.”

To Jim Straub, a landlord and the legislative director for the Oregon Rental Housing Association (ORHA), tenant advocates refusing to budge on no-cause evictions is “unprecedented and, frankly, it scared us.”

And so the Landlord-Tenant Coalition is no more, at least for this legislative session, and potentially indefinitely, says John VanLandingham, the staff attorney at Lane County Legal Aid and Advocacy Center who’s chaired the coalition since the late 1980s.

“Multifamily owners, developers, and builders must work together to stop additional changes to our laws which are based on one-sided anecdotal information,” states Multifamily NW Executive Director Deborah Imse in fundraising material. “This is why Multifamily NW and a coalition of landlord groups around the state have founded the Equitable Housing Political Action Committee.”

The PAC, formerly known as Multifamily NW PAC, raised nearly $300,000 last year (about $270,000 more than its previous high mark in 2014) during the breakup of the Landlord-Tenant Coalition.

“Our first goal is to raise significant funds to support legislative candidates who see things our way,” Imse continued. “The funds raised by the committee will be used to support key members and candidates who can win and who realize that the radical changes proposed are foolhardy.”

“They’re catastrophizing,” counters CAT Policy and Organizing Manager Pam Phan. “(They’re) creating a world of chaos for property managers and landlords to operate.”

Equitable Housing PAC has been taking in money from landlords and dishing out thousands to politicians—like last week’s $2,500 check to the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund or last month’s $1,000 donation to the Committee to Elect Mike McLane, the house Republican leader—as well as government lobbyists and a public relations team (who did not respond when asked for comment on this story).

In August, not long after the coalition fell apart, Equitable Housing PAC raised $50,000 and a few weeks later dished out the same amount to the Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, which supports Oregon’s Republican senate candidates. In September, Multifamily NW—the main landlord group which runs the PAC and a frequent target of protests by Portland Tenants United (PTU)—chipped in $20,000 to the PAC, which then gave $25,000 to the Leadership Fund, which also supports Republicans in the Oregon Senate. The Equitable Housing PAC has received $155,050 from out-of-state contributions since September, CAT’s Katrina Holland points out, after never taking money from outside Oregon previously.

“The money the Equitable Housing PAC is raising... that just shows how much spare cash the landlords have laying around,” says PTU’s Margot Black. “They are literally using our rent money to fight us to reserve the power to extract more rent money.”

Landlord groups need to raise the money for the lobbying effort, ORHA’s Straub tells the Mercury, because tenant advocates like PTU “have brought a public awareness to what they’ve identified as their issue in a new way, through social media. We’ve never seen this level of activism, this confrontational style of politics for landlord-tenant issues in the past. It put landlords back on their heels for a little bit. The protesting, the picketing, the in-your-face style of politics is kind of foreign to Oregon.... We have landlords that are scared for their physical wellbeing.”

The 2017 legislative session begins on February 1. Speaker Kotek proposed a bill on Monday that would repeal the statewide ban on local jurisdictions implementing rent control policies. Meanwhile, Gov. Brown proposed a bill that would ban landlords from terminating month-to-month leases without due cause. But, of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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