House Approves Renter Relief Measures as Clock Ticks on Wider Housing Deal

Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Denis C. Theriault
The Oregonian

Legislation that would give Oregon tenants more time to navigate rent increases at a time of surging costs cleared the House with bipartisan support Tuesday — marking an important milestone on one of this session's top issues.

House Bill 4143, approved 48-11, keeps alive a wider agreement on housing and land-use issues. It would ban rent increases during a month-to-month tenant's first year. It also would require landlords give 90-day warnings when looking to raise rents after a tenant's first year.

Lawmakers initially hoped to pass a much broader set of provisions, including a 90-day notice for no-cause lease terminations and provisions putting landlords on the hook for relocation costs.

But those proposals and others were stripped away amid pressure from industry lobbyists and concerns that a farther-reaching bill would fail in the Senate — where several prominent Democrats own rental property.

Those changes mean any renter protections approved this session will be weaker than rules passed by Portland City Council last fall. Portland already requires 90-day notices for no-cause evictions.

"I know this bill falls far short of what we need to do," said Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, the bill's sponsor. That said, "struggling Oregon families can't wait."

The vote followed more stories and statistics illustrating a housing crisis — evictions and sudden rent increases forcing families on the street or into housing far from jobs and schools — that's grown not only in Portland but also across the state.

And yet HB 4143's fate, despite support from nearly a dozen House Republicans, remains unclear.

It's one of four bills — joining measures on mandatory affordable housing and land use changes — that House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, linked together after a special meeting with lobbyists this month.

A complex measure that would end a state ban on new construction excise taxes and also let cities and counties require builders set aside affordable units almost came apart in recent days, amid technical disagreements over property tax waivers.

That proposal, Senate Bill 1533, has also been whittled down to win over developers who'd pushed the state's ban on forced inclusionary zoning in 1999 — settling on a definition of affordable housing that includes Oregonians earning 80 percent of the median family income.

The revised bill also includes a minimum threshold for when the mandates could be used: 20 units. And it caps the number of units local governments could set aside as affordable at 20 percent.

Supporters see inclusionary zoning as a way to add affordable options in a market that's been answering demand from wealthier buyers and renters from out of state. Critics say the mandates will make all housing more expensive or possibly contribute too few units to justify any land use tradeoffs.

SB 1533 remains alive, thanks to a blur of weekend talks, between industry lobbyists and Portland officials, that produced a compromise on the property tax issue. A Senate panel voted unanimously to send the bill to floor Tuesday afternoon.

Two other bills also remain on track. House Bill 4079 would allow experimental expansions of smaller cities' regional growth boundaries for affordable housing. A fourth bill, Senate Bill 1573, would let cities annex land without a vote, so long as everyone in the affected area has agreed to annexation.

The negotiations from Kotek's office that led to the package of bills caused some heartburn during Tuesday's House vote.

"I don't know when I've seen this level of dictating outcomes," said Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Clackamas, who voted no — also because he found the discussion too rushed. "As one of the 89 others who weren't in that room, I have some concerns about it."

But earlier in the debate, a Republican who'd voted no when the bill left the House's committee on housing explained why he had changed his mind and decided to say yes.

Among the amendments approved as part of Kotek's negotiations, a law approved last year that set stronger requirements for emergency exits in basement apartments was changed. Older units, so long as they were up to code when constructed, would be grandfathered in.

Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, said he liked that HB 4143 was lifting regulations and adding units to the market as the same time as it added new limits on rent increases.

"It's a balanced bill," he said.

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