BIG WIN for Portland’s New Tenant Union

Organizers hope victory will encourage other renters to organize and demand to bargain the conditions of their rental agreements

Tenants who formed the Chestnut Court Tenants Union (CCTU) are celebrating a big victory after successfully negotiating the terms and provisions of their new lease, despite being told — repeatedly and emphatically — that the terms of the lease were “non-negotiable” by their their new management company, GRID Property Management.

An email from GRID, reminding the union president that this yet unseen contract was not up for discussion.

The drama began when GRID, who took over the management of the property in December, announced that all month-to-month tenants would be required to switch to a long-term lease. Many of the tenants have lived in their homes for over 10 years, and had proactively formed the union to preserve their long-time community, so signing a lease to give them additional security was not something they were worried about.

The petition and letter that officially declared the formation of the Chestnut Court Tenants Union

But the tenants became concerned when the official “offer letter” arrived, with language terminating their month-to-month tenancies, announcing that the lease was necessary because “Portland and the Oregon Legislature are proposing a series of changes to current landlord/tenant laws”, offering only 6 or 7 month leases, and requiring that tenants send in a signed acceptance of the offer within 5 days, before even seeing the lease. In short: Tenants were being rushed into contractually agreeing to something without full information, and if they didn’t respond in the short time window, they’d have to move out of their long time homes.

Part of the letter sent to tenants in January, giving 5 days to accept lease offer beginning March 1, or get out by April 21.

The tenants were unwilling to immediately agree to sign a lease they hadn’t even seen, or a lease they had seen but didn’t agree with.

Over the next several weeks, despite intimidation tactics from GRID’s lawyers, they successfully applied their power as a union to win various concessions from GRID for more time, more information, and most recently, a meeting to negotiate the terms of the “non-negotiable” lease. (Read more here.)

The President of CCTU, Amanda Potter, explains:

“GRID gave us a 22 page lease which we were required to sign in order to stay in our homes. They said it was non-negotiable, but we took issues with some of the components of the lease and and demanded to meet with them to discuss our concerns.”

On Monday February 20th a group of CCTU tenants and two advocates from PTU arrived to discuss the lease. Outside, community and PTU members stood in the intersection of Grand & Morrison, displaying a giant banner that read “GRID Property Management Negotiate With Your Tenants”, and waving at motorists who honked their horn in support of tenants rights.

The street protest paid off. When the tenants and advocates showed up at the office, they were told that Amanda Potter, the union president, would not be allowed in the meeting, nor would the two PTU representatives. But with chants outside being heard in the office, from 7 floors below, and the rest of the CCTU tenants demanding they meet with all of us, GRID quickly conceded and allowed everyone in the room, with Potter and PTU organizer Margot Black acting as negotiators for the Chestnut Court Tenants Union.

The first ask in the packed conference room was for more time for the tenants to consider their options based on the outcome of the meeting. Despite being told by GRID the day before tenants only had until midnight to sign, no exceptions, GRID managers readily agreed to extend the deadline, claiming that the midnight deadline was only ever a suggestion and never firm.

“This was a big victory”, said PTU organizer Lucy Berger, “the tenants were scared and angry about the looming deadline, but it showed the power of community support”.

As the tenants began to explain their grievances about the lease, the honking horns and chants from the rally outside were clearly audible. The GRID reps acknowledged they were unnerved by “the mob” outside. A news crew was also on site, further putting GRID under the microscope to respond to the reasonable demands of the tenants.

Even though GRID management restated that the lease was “non negotiable” on our way into the board room and around the table, it only took a few minutes of hearing the community support from outside and feeling the pressure from inside before they were ready to consider the demands of the union.

The meeting was often heated, with both tenants and GRID reps arguing about the terms and legal ramifications of the lease. At several points in the conversation it was clear that the tenants had a clearer knowledge and understanding of Oregon landlord tenant law, and the lease’s implications, than the property managers did.

By the conclusion of the meeting most of the demands had been addressed and negotiated, with an agreement to confirm the changes in writing. The only major request hanging in the balance was the tenant’s desire to have a longer lease option, as opposed to the 6 month lease they were offered. One long-time tenant had already asked and been denied the option of a 12-month lease the week before, but the manager agreed to bring this request for longer leases to the owner.

The following day, GRID emailed the tenants, officially informing them that nearly all their demands would be incorporated into a new version of the lease.

  • New language the tenants wanted would be added that stipulated that tenants would receive 60-days notice for a lease renewal option.
  • (Note: If the renewal includes a rent increase, state law requires that GRID would still have to give 90-days notice. Thus, the most important outcome of this concession is that tenants got clarity on the intention of the owner to renew their leases, rather than kick them out to sell the building. GRID was adamant about not including the clause about converting to month-to-month in order to avoid stronger tenant protections that lawmakers are discussing at the state level, but their compromise at least gives tenants the same level of protection they have now.)
  • Language in the lease requiring that tenants have carpets professionally cleaned and provide receipt upon moving out was changed to a requirement that the carpets only be vacuum cleaned.
  • (As written, tenants who had lived in their apartment for 20 years would be required to have the carpets professionally cleaned, even though they’d likely be replaced for the new tenant! It also allowed GRID to clean the carpets again and bill the tenants for it.)
  • Language that would hold tenants responsible for exterior ‘winterization’ was amended to be more realistic and applicable to tenants in a multifamily complex .
  • Language that allowed GRID to run an annual credit and background check on the tenants and then charge them for it was removed.

But perhaps the most exciting victory of all was that GRID conceded to the demand for longer leases, and was now offering all of the tenants one-year leases, with an option for a shorter lease if they desired. Tenants could now lock in their rent and feel secure in their homes for an entire year; a big relief for tenants worried they’d be out on the street in six months.

“GRID ended up negotiating some of the clauses of the lease and provided us with new, updated leases to sign, and now we get to stay in our homes under terms we’re more comfortable with. While this is an important victory for us as a tenant union, we still recognize there’s a lot of work to be done on a bigger scale to protect renters in Oregon.”

Portland Tenants United organizer Margot Black discussed the significance of this victory:

“ The real victory here is that tenants negotiated a lease, in the same way that labor unions negotiate through collective bargaining. We hope this will act as a precedent, so that other tenants will form unions and assert their power collectively so that their demands can be incorporated into the lease, a legally binding contract.”

Two of the tenants at Chestnut Court are moving out due to job changes that leave them worried about being in a lease of any length instead of month to month. While they are sad to leave their Chestnut Court community, they will be paid relocation expenses under the new ordinance because their move is the result of their month to month tenancy being terminated. Another victory of tenant organizing. The rest of the CCTU tenants are reveling in their victory and their newfound housing security.

GRID revealed at the meeting that they were changing all of their tenants, across the state, to these new fixed term leases, saying that “Perpetuity is not in the best interest of the owner”. Several other tenants of GRID property management have contacted PTU to discuss their own issues with their lease and one tenant contacted GRID directly asking for the same changes to their lease that were negotiated by CCTU. GRID complied.

#TenantPower