Will Democrats Quietly Kill Oregon’s ‘Real’ Rent Control Bill?

PTU ‘flocked’ Tina Kotek’s front yard with flamingos

When Oregon passed its nationally acclaimed statewide ‘rent control’ bill (SB 608), housing advocates agreed that the new law was fairly moderate. While adding some protections against ‘no cause’ evictions, the “rent stabilization” part of the bill was, at best, weak — limiting yearly rent increases to around 10% (or more if inflation worsens). Noticeably absent from the bill was a key issue, long-demanded from renters: lifting the ban on Oregon’s cities from enacting their own local rent control policies.

Ending the local ban on rent control remains urgent. A recent study found that 156,000 households in Oregon are at imminent risk of homelessness because they pay 50% or more of their income towards rent. These rent burdened households can’t afford a 10% rent increase, and taxpayers cannot afford to pay tens of millions more to care for these future homeless families after they’re pushed into the streets by the next rent hike. A 2017 study concluded that homelessness had increased 100% in some Oregon counties.

Allowing landlords to raise the rents significantly more than wages increase just exacerbates the growing homelessness crisis that our lawmakers should be trying to squelch.

With the current state of Oregon’s housing crisis, a 10% rent increase is far too little, way too late; the worst damage has largely been inflicted after a decade of price gouging rent increases.

Oregon’s law has been hailed as unprecedented because it’s the only state to enact statewide rent control. But also unprecedented is how high the rent cap is. Most rent control policies across the country cap increases at 1–3%, and no rent control policy in the world enshrines rent increases as high as Oregon just did.

The law is effectively an anti-price gouging law, meant to compliment the new just-cause eviction standards, but not meant to actually stabilize rent. Simply put, Oregon’s unprecedented new law only stabilizes those who can afford yearly 10% rent increases, i.e. upper-middle class renters, leaving economically vulnerable and low-income renters to fend for themselves.

Ending Oregon’s ban on local rent was a pillar demand of Senator Shemia Fagan’s platform, during her successful campaign last November. Her landslide election victory against longtime Democratic Senator Rod Monroe — who is a landlord and against tenants’ rights — was a resounding mandate for tenants’ issues. Indeed, this is what made SB 608 possible.

PTU organizers hung these banners over multiple bridges before the primary election where Fagan defeated incumbent Senator Monroe by over 40 points.

But instead of Senator Fagan writing the bill renters needed and deserved, she was frozen out of the process, while Senator and landlord Ginny Burdick — along with House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney — drafted a bill in partnership with a landlord lobby group that included all the right buzzwords, but had a negligible impact on reining in rapacious landlords.

The power that renters leveraged by unseating Rod Monroe wasn’t written into SB608 — instead the law was written to acknowledge the mandate while making it palatable to landlords, so it could pass quickly with little controversy and so that tenant demands that had dogged the legislature for the last 5 years would finally be “off the table”. Language was carefully crafted that protected most of the landlord’s power via a litany of exemptions and loopholes, at the expense of the housing security of renters.

Key lawmakers readily acknowledged that SB 608 “didn’t go far enough”, and promised that SB 608 was “only the first step” in tenant protections. But they failed to discuss how the bill fell short nor when the next step would be. All the urgency of the housing crisis got lost in the celebration of a “historic” bill.

But the next step is staring lawmakers in the face, already written and submitted to the Housing and Human Services Committee: Oregon House Bill 2540.

HB2540 ends the local ban on rent control in Portland and creates critically needed resources for renters outside of Portland. And it will cost the state nothing.

Authored by Rep. Paul Evans, who represents rural communities an hour south of Portland, HB2540 is the perfect and urgently needed next step. Lifting the ban on rent control in Portland is important, but renters rights advocates have always known that just lifting the ban would likely only be meaningful in areas with progressive city councils and strong advocacy for renters.

Perhaps more importantly than giving Portland the tools it needs, HB2540 creates a required pathway to stronger renter protections — including rent control — for the rest of the state. All cities outside of Portland would be required to create local Housing Stability Commissions to bring local landlords, tenants, and other stakeholders around the table to establish local housing affordability standards. If these standards would require a lower cap on rent increases than what is allowed by the state, then they would not be preempted from adopting a local rent control policy to enact those standards.

Regardless of whether or not these smaller cities would enact a stricter rent control policy than the state’s, the primary goal of HB2540 is for local jurisdictions to start to take some responsibility for the landlord-tenant component of the housing crisis. The lack of resources and advocacy for renters outside the Portland metro area is a serious problem that could finally start to be addressed by HB2540. Rep. Evans is from the Monmouth area, and has introduced this bill 3 years in a row, in response to his rural constituents.

The bill would not override or contradict SB 608. It is the perfect and much needed complement. Yet it may meet a premature death by an Oregon legislature controlled by a supermajority of Democrats

So why isn’t anyone talking about HB2540?

HB2540 was ‘discovered’ by PTU after they scoured all the housing bills introduced this legislative session. Having been told that SB608 was all that renters would get this session, and knowing that other competing legislation never made it to the public eye, PTU was surprised to find HB2540 just sitting there, waiting for a hearing.

However, when PTU started inquiring about the bill to legislators, they were offered plenty of interesting excuses. Legislators said that Rep. Evans didn’t actually mean to lift the ban; that he’d submitted HB2540 only as an alternative to SB608; that he now didn’t want his bill to pass, etc.

Surprisingly, Representative Evans told PTU organizers the opposite when they visited his office. He definitely wants HB2540 to get a hearing, and he said that the phone calls PTU is asking the public to make to legislators are working. Evans said he’d been told his bill wouldn’t get a hearing unless he agreed to remove language that lifted the ban, before the hearing. Fortunately, this was a compromise he was unwilling to make.

Paige Kreisman, Organizing Committee member for PTU, believes she knows why HB 2540 is being shunned:

“Multiple sources have confirmed that the only reason the landlord and realtor lobbies didn’t try to kill SB608 is because they were assured that the ban on local rent control would stay in place, and that nothing else substantial would stand in the way of their profits.”
Representative Paul Evans with PTU organizers

HB 2540 has already been introduced and assigned to the Housing and Human Services Committee, Chaired by Alissa Keny-Guyer (who is going on medical leave, to be temporarily replaced by Rep. Tawna Sanchez). Keny-Guyer has been a long time advocate for renters, and as a result of PTU bringing awareness of the bill, she agreed to give it a hearing in late April or May. However, such a hearing would only be performative and symbolic. HB2540 needs to be voted out of committee by April 9th, otherwise the bill is condemned to a quiet death, along with a lifeline for renters.

At her March 16th town hall Representative Keny-Guyer made several revealing statements, saying that HB2540 had “no chance of passing”, because “… the agreement was that we would do SB 608 and pause [on further actions for renters].” The legislative focus would then be shifted to raising revenue. Keny-Guyer acknowledged that SB 608 “didn’t go far enough”, admitting that it was more of an “anti-price gouging” bill more than real rent stabilization.

While Portland Tenants United recognizes and has appreciated Keny-Guyer’s advocacy for renters, she should push back on backroom deals in Salem that harm and disempower tenants, not defend them. HB 2540 deserves a quick, meaningful hearing and to be passed onto the floor for a vote by a Democratic supermajority. Even if the vote fails, renters need to know who their true allies are in Salem, and who to replace. Indeed, this is exactly why some legislators don’t want HB2540 to get a real hearing or a floor vote.

A supermajority of Democrats offers a historically unique opportunity for passing strong tenant protections, and we can’t accept excuses — especially backroom deals made without renters at the table, at the expense of renters.

The 10% rent increases allowable under SB608 provide no comfort or relief to the vast majority of renters, and parading such a policy as a “victory” — while agreeing to stop any additional measures — is quickly becoming a betrayal. With a supermajority in Salem there are simply no excuses. Now is the time to take the next step, since a better time is unlikely to reveal itself.

It was renters who made sure that Rod Monroe was replaced with a tenant rights champion in the senate; to cut renters, their demands, and their real needs out of the bill writing process shows renters exactly how they are perceived by the legislature.

Portland Tenants United is asking that renters and allies make calls to Tina Kotek, Alissa Keny-Guyer, and Tawna Sanchez, Shemia Fagan, as well as their own representatives, demanding that HB 2540 get a public hearing in Housing and Human Services Committee before April 9th, and a commitment to championing the bill until passage.

Tina Kotek: 503–986–1200

Alissa Keny-Guyer: 503–986–1446

Tawna Sanchez: 503–986–1443

Shemia Fagan: 503–986–1724