On December 3rd, more than a hundred Portland area tenants and allies came together for Portland Tenants United’s quarterly General Assembly and Holiday Victory party. Attendance included many long-time friends, 15 newly minted members, community organizers, labor representatives, and several candidates for local and state office — including PTU dues-paying members JoAnne Hardesty and Kayse Jama (running for Portland City Council and State Senate District 24, respectively).
There was good reason to gather, and to celebrate. Our membership has grown rapidly and tenants have successfully demonstrated power in the courts, the streets, with the landlords, and with elected officials. Most notably: barely a year since the unprecedented landslide election of tenants’ rights champion Chloe Eudaly to Portland’s city council, PTU fought for and won significant victories in the city of Portland, including the game-changing relocation ordinance, and creation of the Office of Tenant Affairs (now dubbed the “Office of Rental Services”).
Much of the last year was spent defending and strengthening the relocation ordinance, but now that city council is poised to make it permanent in January, PTU members eagerly gathered at the general assembly to discuss and choose our next policy campaign.
The enthusiasm in the room was palpable: dozens of members signed up to volunteer for and help organize various projects, learned about other organizing and campaigns happening in the community (and voted to officially endorse and support Living Cully’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase campaign!), and discussed eight possible policy issues to work on moving forward — in addition to an ongoing effort to expand the relocation protections to the metro area.
And then we voted.
The members have spoken. We will begin forming working groups to map out a strategy and build partnerships for the following top three demands. Please consider volunteering to help us make these critical policy-initiatives a reality.
1. THE RIGHT TO UNIONIZE and COLLECTIVELY BARGAIN
The biggest vote-getter is a policy that, if passed, would be a game changer in the landlord–tenant power imbalance. State law currently protects tenants from retaliation if they organize or form a tenant union, but the landlord is under no obligation to recognize or negotiate with the union in any way.
Imagine the possibilities if tenants had a clear path to unionization that landlords would be legally compelled to engage with. The rental agreement would be a truly negotiated document, rather than a contract of adhesion. Rather than worry about the consequences of speaking out to demand better living conditions, tenants would feel empowered to organize unions and more leases would be the result of a collective bargaining agreement, similar to what exists for labor unions. One tenant-member who strongly endorsed this policy during the meeting correctly noted that all of the other issues could be resolved through the power of collectively bargaining.
(Speaking of unions, ahem… 👉 JOIN THE UNION TODAY 👈)
2. NO EVICTION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION
Eviction court is a dark place, where most tenants appear in front of a judge, desperate, scared, and confused, without legal assistance or a knowledgeable advocate. Meanwhile the landlord is almost always lawyered-up. Some data shows that 90% of all landlords are represented in court, whereas 90% of tenants aren’t. And any lawyer will tell you, the likelihood of winning a court case lies not with the strength of the evidence, but on whether or not you have an attorney. Landlord–tenant law and the eviction court process is complex and technical. Tenants facing eviction typically don’t go in with the knowledge they need to save their housing, and can’t afford an attorney. It’s a recipe for injustice, intimidation, discrimination, and displacement.
The city of Portland can guarantee that every tenant has an attorney in eviction in court if they want one, regardless of their ability to pay. New York city recently set a great example for Portland to follow, and San Francisco is working on a similar policy. If the Mayor and city council care about the housing crisis, they need to invest in eviction prevention, since eviction court is a birth center for homelessness.
3. IMMIGRANT AND UNDOCUMENTED PROTECTION ACT
On paper, Portland is a “sanctuary city”, but sanctuary begins at home. And if Portland city council wants to live up to its proud “sanctuary city” status, it needs to do much more for the people most at risk. Legislation is needed that strengthens protections for those most vulnerable to housing discrimination and retaliation: immigrants, refugees, or those with undocumented legal status shouldn’t live in fear of their landlords. Landlords who know or suspect their tenants are undocumented (or have other barriers to finding new housing) often deny their tenants rights and protections by threatening deportation if the tenant reports the violation. No one should live in fear of their landlord separating them from their family and community, or tolerate substandard living conditions to avoid it.
To help accomplish this important goal PTU is dedicated to forming or joining a broad and strong community coalition of people and organizations to inform this policy and win.
The Office of Rental Services
In addition to choosing our next campaign priorities, attendees also learned about Portland’s new Rental Services Commission (RSC) on which PTU member and organizer, Margot Black, holds a seat. At present, the commission will meet monthly (on the 3rd Tuesday’s of the month from 3–5 PM at the Housing Bureau — these meetings are open to the public and you should come!), to discuss programs and services offered by the new Office of Rental Services, as well as new landlord–tenant regulations being considered by city council.
There are dozens of ways the office could support, protect, and empower tenants, especially with a PTU organizer on the commission. But where to begin? After discussing many possibilities, PTU members indicated their top five priorities.
Other Important Decisions
- PTU remains dedicated to making Portland’s relocation assistance policy “whole”, by demanding that all tenants are protected from forced displacement and price-gouging, not just those whose landlords own multiple units. Portland’s City Council hearing to make the relocation ordinance permanent is tentatively set for January 25th, and will require a massive turnout of renters, allies, and other tenant advocates.
- The PTU membership unanimously voted to support the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase” initiative spearheaded by Living Cully. This would mandate that tenants get notice of an intent to sell their property, and an opportunity to purchase it before it is listed on the open market. Landlords who plan to sell would first have to notify the city and allow the tenants or city the first chance to buy the property in order to keep it affordable, potentially as a tenant-owned cooperative. Such a policy has existed for decades in Washington D.C. and has helped transfer ownership to countless tenants who have used city or non-profit funding to help purchase the buildings.
- Expanding relocation assistance: PTU remains dedicated to expanding Portland’s strongest rental protection to neighboring municipalities and hopefully across Oregon, since the state legislature’s failure to protect tenants requires cities and counties step up.
2018 and Beyond
Overall the event marked a significant step forward for Portland Tenants United: our membership is growing as we transition into a truly member-led organization, where quarterly membership meetings decide the direction of the organization and make important strategic decisions. We hope to continue training organizers and partnering with organizations so that Portland’s renters find relief, community, and real sanctuary.