Time for Tenant Rights in Oregon: Proposal is a Start, But Needs Work

This year Oregon will likely become the first and only state in the U.S. to limit rent increases. When our state legislature passes this law there is no question that it will be something worth celebrating. Not only will it be an historic landmark in the struggle for tenant rights but for the first time everyone in our state, not just in the City of Portland, will have protection against sudden, frequent, and exorbitant rent increases. Just like being the first state to limit rent increases, extending tenant rights to smaller cities and to the rural areas of our state is an equally important achievement in the struggle for housing justice.

If the proposal put forward by Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson passes as is it would also limit no-cause evictions statewide. No-cause evictions have been a major source of housing instability in Oregon. When I tell friends in other states about the struggle here in Oregon to end no-cause evictions, they are left jaw-dropped by the idea that a landlord can just evict you for no reason, whenever they want to.

tenantrightsAs a labor-community organization, we at Portland Jobs with Justice believe that union members should understand the importance of ending no-cause evictions better than anyone. Unions have fought and continue to fight hard to ensure that all union contracts have just termination clauses that ensure no union member will be fired without just cause. Even more than only just cause, our union contracts spell out step-by-step the disciplinary process in which employers must engage in good faith before a termination can be deemed just. Why wouldn’t we want the same protections in our homes that we have in our jobs? Just cause is a basic protection that needs to be extended to all workers in all workplaces, union or not. Similarly all tenants need this basic protection and to ensure stability in their homes and their lives.

These are important reasons why we at Portland JwJ support the passage of a strong statewide tenants’ rights bill here in Oregon this legislative session. But while we believe the current proposal is a good starting point for that conversation, it is important that we view this proposal as just that, a starting point and not the final product. The final bill that gets passed into law undoubtedly needs to do much more to protects tenants here in Oregon.

Limiting rent increases is so important, not just here in Portland but throughout the state. However, limiting them to 7% per year plus inflation as proposed means that many working families, seniors and people with disabilities who are on fixed incomes, and people living in poverty generally will be priced out of their homes and their neighborhoods within only a few short years at most. This is as true in Pendleton and Klamath City as it is in Portland, Salem, or Eugene. Limited rent increases statewide  to 7% per year plus inflation may be historic in geographic scope, but it doesn’t actually solve the very massive problem of out of control rental inflation. On the contrary, it only kicks the can of displacement further down the road. Families certainly are not seeing annual raises in their paychecks of 7% per year plus inflation. We are lucky if we even get a cost of living adjustment let alone an actual raise, and even less a raise as large as 7%.

renters marchAnother glaring problem with the currently proposed limit on rent increases is that it exempts all new buildings for 15 years after they are built. With recent large increases in Oregon’s population, and the massive building boom over the past decade in cities from Portland to Bend, there is no doubt that this exemption will leave out tens of thousands of families across the state who will still be subject to unlimited and out of control rent increases at the whim of their landlords. This is not right, it is not just, and it is a piece of the proposal that needs to change. A good example and benchmark might be New York City. As pointed out by the Willamette Week, landlords there were limited to increasing rent by 1.5% last year, which is about the same rate as general inflation was for the year.

The just cause eviction policy in the current proposal is another piece that is at the same time both of vital importance and in need of stronger revision. As is, the proposal still permits no-cause evictions during the first year of a tenant’s residency in a new home. A year is also the standard term of a lease, at least in the Portland area. So you essentially have to make it through your whole first lease at a new home, decide you want to stay, and assuming that your landlord decides to renew your lease then you are finally protected from no-cause evictions. A year gives landlords too much time to evict families for no reason, and unfortunately leaves tenants with at least an entire year of instability and uncertainty every time they have to move.

This loophole is concerning for a number of reasons. Will we see a spike in no-cause evictions within the first year of residency? Or will there be a significant uptick in landlords refusing to renew leases in order to skirt around just-cause eviction law? A year is too long and this is something in the current proposal that needs to be strengthened if not eliminated altogether. To be fair, even most union contracts and union jobs have probationary periods before just-cause policy kicks in, where an employee can be fired for no cause. If some similar probationary period is a must for just-cause eviction policy in rental housing, then at most 3 months seems like a reasonable amount of time for a landlord to ensure their new tenant will pay the rent without forcing tenants to live a life of perpetual housing instability.

Written by Justin Norton-Kertson, Portland Jobs with Justice Solidarity Organizer.

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