The Fate of Portland’s Strongest Tenant Protection
City Council will take up the Relocation Ordinance again this Wednesday
Landlords sneered and renters cheered when Portland City Council passed its historic Relocation Assistance ordinance in February, requiring that landlords pay for the cost of displacing renters. ‘Relo’ remains the strongest and most effective tool to protect tenants in the entire state. As the nation’s only non-rent-control protection from an ‘economic eviction’, it has inspired Seattle and other cities to follow Portland’s lead.
But the ordinance is now under threat: it is set to expire on Friday and Portland City Council is meeting on Wednesday, October 4th to discuss its fate. But instead of demonstrating a commitment to housing stability by making this critical policy permanent, the mayor intends only to extend it until April, prolonging the anxiety of Portland’s renters as they wait to find out if the axe will fall in six months. Their anxiety is justified in light of evidence that landlord lobbyists are seeking to water down the law before it’s made permanent. And despite an initial and resounding defeat in court, landlord-funded litigators have filed an appeal in hopes to have the policy declared illegal altogether. So of course the next best thing is to convince the mayor to weaken and riddle it with loopholes, a perfect setup to show policymakers victims of these loopholes as evidence that “tenant protections don’t work”.
The harsh reality of Portland’s ongoing housing crisis is that Relocation Assistance, especially in its current form, while a powerful and effective tool, is still only a tourniquet that slows the bleeding while workers, families, and seniors continue to struggle to pay rent that’s already way too high, and getting higher still.
When Portland passed the relocation ordinance with a rent increase threshold of 10%, the landlords responded by issuing 9.9% rent increases rather than do some self reflection and rein in their abusive price gouging. While such an increase might have been affordable before the 20, 40, or 100 percent increases the years before, now a yearly 9.9% increase compounded on top of previous rent increases means tough choices for cost burdened families to stay housed.
The situation is even more dire for those already displaced outside of Portland city limits; the nominal relief and peace of mind offered by Relo doesn’t exist at all. Especially because the Oregon legislature came back empty handed after a session that was supposed to bring major relief to renters across the state. Renters outside of Portland are being told by their own city and county commissioners that they can’t work on a relocation policy for their own jurisdictions until they see what shape Portland’s permanent policy will take. These renters are waiting in agony while Portland dithers with an extension.
Rather than kicking the can down the road, City Council could take immediate action on the 4th to make Relo permanent, as well as strengthen the current policy, by removing the unjust and ill-considered exemption for so-called ‘small landlords’. The question is, will they choose to? Like all politicians, the Mayor and other Commissioners face pressure from those with deep pockets, and are reluctant to enact change in the absence of countervailing pressure from the people. Any improvements to the Relo ordinance on the 4th will absolutely require that the community call, write, and show up to express their support.
The initial Relo victory was made possible by the election of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who rode a wave of populist anger against soaring rent prices and no-cause evictions. Eudaly and then Mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler adopted several components of the Tenants Bill of Rights written by Portland Tenants United (PTU), which included the demand for relocation assistance and also the successful demand to create an office of tenant affairs.
Relo remains a powerful lever for renters who are either no-cause evicted or priced out of their home (due to a 10% or more rent increase over a 12 month period). The relo payment to the tenant from their landlord is $2,900 for a studio, $3,300 for one-bedroom units, $4,200 for two-bedroom units, and $4,500 for a three-bedroom or larger.
Despite relo disincentivizing landlords from casually displacing their tenants without cause or raising the rent significantly, these things are still happening and still legal, just much less frequently. The relo check, however, has been a crucial lifeline for tenants facing an unplanned move forced upon them by their landlord; thanks to relo these renters are allowed the dignity of moving without going deeply into debt or facing homelessness. Requiring landlords to take financial responsibility for their decision to force tenants to move has truly changed lives.
There is strong evidence that the program has absolutely changed the landscape of Portland’s displacement crisis. A representative from Legal Aid testified over the summer — when city council was considering technical amendments — that calls from Portland residents to their office about no-cause evictions have virtually stopped. The only exception is those with exempt landlords.
Exempt landlords means a large group of tenants have been categorically denied the relo safety net. These are the unlucky renters who find out after their $900 rent increase or no-cause eviction that because their landlord owns only one rental unit (which is one more than their tenant owns) relo does not apply to them. Seeking to protect the small landlords with smaller profit margins, City Council determined that some renters should not be protected.
These renters don’t pay less rent, they don’t pay smaller security deposits, they don’t have any better luck getting repairs made without retaliation, they aren’t exempt from late fees or other fines, or any of the other sticks that the state gives landlords to use on renters. These tenants don’t get more time to move and moving isn’t any less expensive or traumatic. Simply put, the city decided to prioritize the power and financial stability of those who own two homes over those who own zero.
When landlords tell their tenants that they are exempt, it is up to the tenant to scour county records to determine who owns their home and whether or not they own more than one. (Fun fact: If they own only one rental in Portland, but multiple rentals outside of the city, they are still exempt!) If the owner is an LLC, then the tenant needs to dive into the morass of determining what humans are associated with the LLC and whether or not those humans have any other rentals owned by other LLCs.
Portland Tenants United has spent countless hours researching the ownership interest for these tenants, only to find out that the landlord lied. For tenants who don’t know about PTU, and who lack the language, knowledge, legal or technical resources to do this research on their own, this protection simply isn’t available to them. Simply put, this exemption is unethical, ill-conceived, and lacks an equity lens.
This injustice can be fixed on October 4th: as a sign of good faith to renters City Council should make relo permanent, with an ongoing commitment to hammer out the details for a permanent policy later. As a signal that the city cares about equity and justice (especially delivering justice to landlords who are lying and abusing the loophole), closing the loophole should be a no-brainer priority on the 4th. For those landlords who are truly sympathetic “edge cases”, the city can continue discussions about a hardship appeals process. Assuming the mayor intends to make good on this policy becoming permanent in 6 months, the edge case landlords won’t have to wait long to apply for a waiver, meanwhile, renters living without relo protection should be granted a modicum of housing security.
While the city will be eager to defer these questions to the relocation technical advisory committee, it makes more sense for this committee to start with a mandate for asking about exemptions and appeals more generally, rather than have the bias of an existing exemption leading to a belabored discussion over this one hasty ill-conceived loophole. Indeed, removing the exemption now will put the committee in a much more neutral and healthy position for considering the policy and its impacts and outcomes more broadly.
As we have seen with other tenant protections under consideration, whenever landlords are given a head start, they rush the doors. If we don’t close the exemption now, but City Council signals that they may do so later, tenants with small landlords will be even more vulnerable to eviction in the meantime. Maybe the commissioners in favor of this exemption should donate personal funds to bail out these left out renters?!
When Chloe Eudaly unseated a sitting commissioner in a landslide vote, she had a mandate to protect tenants. But unfortunately, the mayor has been in charge of tenant protections ever since by relegating them to the Housing Bureau which he is in charge of. When he announced in a public Relo committee meeting that he’d be extending the policy by 6 months, this was news to Eudaly’s office. Despite Commissioner Eudaly’s leadership, experience, expertise, and commitment to this important issue, she has been left out of these important decisions by the mayor, whose ear is bent strongly toward the landlord lobby.
Because of her tireless advocacy, Portland Tenants United is asking Commissioner Eudaly to renew her commitment to renters and to bucking business-as-usual politics in city hall by proposing an amendment to the current relocation policy:
- Make it permanent now (instead of waiting 6 months)
- Remove the single-unit exemption
- Require landlords notify tenants of their rights under Relo when they give notice of a rent increase or no-cause eviction (too many tenants don’t know!)
By proposing such an amendment, and thereby making the rest of Council have to vote on it, awareness will be raised on the issue and the rest of council will either agree with the amendments or show their true unwillingness to protecting tenants from bad actors. Council must stand and say why they believe the financial security of some landlords is more important than that of their renters. If the amendment passes, it will be harder to water the existing policy down.
Even though these amendments may not have the votes, it is important that policy makers be challenged and held accountable. It’s crucial that we move forward to protect half of the city’s population.
Renters’ rights, Eudaly’s signature issue, is still the #1 issue facing Portland. We cannot rest on our laurels by having won Relo; the crisis continues, and continues to force people into the street. The high rent may necessitate fresh calls for a rent freeze, or a rent roll back, especially if 9.9% rent increases are allowed to occur unchecked and small landlords are allowed to abuse their power with impunity. As it stands now, Relo doesn’t prevent even 500% rent increases, it just supplies the renters the cash for the inevitable move such a rent increase will force. No landlord is forced to pay Relocation; all they have to do to avoid it is not price gouge and not no-cause evict.
Failed legislation at the state level forces the city to act, aggressively, in order to keep roofs over families’ heads. Other nearby municipalities are waiting to see the permanent relocation policy, in order to copy it. All eyes are on Portland for their leadership on this issue. Let’s not let them down and give the landlords more to celebrate.