EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story went to press Tuesday, Portland Tenants United announced to the Mercury that it has decided not to support House Bill 2004 in its current form.
IF ROD MONROE hopped onto Interstate 205 on the trek from his East Portland district to Salem on Monday morning, the state senator would have seen his name blaring back at him.
“SENATOR ROD MONROE” read a large white banner hanging from an overpass near Clackamas Town Center. Next to it, a smaller green banner said “Yes on HB 2004.”
The signs, posted by renter advocacy group Portland Tenants United, were just the latest in a string of actions meant to pressure Monroe. The Democratic senator is a necessary “yes” vote if House Bill 2004, the central renter protection bill of the current legislative session, is going to pass. He’s also a landlord to dozens of East Portland tenants.
And right now, Monroe isn’t sold on HB 2004.
Even with what advocates consider dispiriting amendments to the bill—it no longer includes a much-sought provision that would’ve opened the door to rent control in Oregon for the first time in more than three decades—Monroe is said to oppose the bolstered protections it offers.
Those protections currently include an end to no-cause evictions if tenants are nine months or more into a month-to-month lease, and a prohibition on landlords hiking rents more than once within a 12-month period. Advocates say these provisions are the bare minimum legislators can do as Portland and other cities around the state grapple with swiftly rising rents, and the serious problems that come with them.
PTU, known for its theatrical demonstrations, just saw a sizable victory. It was a central force in pushing Portland City Council to adopt a historic policy in February requiring landlords to pay relocation fees for tenants issued no-cause evictions.
But the organization’s still looking for a big win in Salem this session, and some suggest that’s partly because of the tactics it’s brought to bear on Monroe.
PTU has sought to sway the senator via tenants in the 51-unit East Portland apartment complex he owns. And in March, members of the group demonstrated outside of Monroe’s church before Sunday service, holding signs with messages like “How would Jesus evict his tenants?” and encouraging members of the congregation to put pressure on Monroe.
Monroe declined to speak with the Mercury for this story, but the church action rubbed his Democratic colleagues the wrong way.
“Deciding to go to Senator Monroe’s church was easily one of the stupidest things anybody could do,” says state Senator Lew Frederick, whose district sits in North and Northeast Portland. “It created a situation where people who were more inclined to vote for it felt that was a violation of privacy. I truly question that particular approach.”
Senator Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, the senate majority leader, says Frederick isn’t alone.
“My entire caucus was furious when that happened at Senator Monroe’s church,” she says. “It’s just human nature: When people are abused they don’t want to help you out. These tactics are counterproductive.”
PTU and other advocates don’t see the scandal.
“It’s not like we went to his kid’s house,” says Margot Black, a PTU leader. “We went to his church to tell his constituents, his neighbors, that there is this critical bill on the floor.”
Felisa Hagins, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 49, agrees.
“You had a few people show up, respectfully flyer at a church, and leave,” Hagins tells the Mercury. “What you’re going to say to the 45 percent of Oregonians who rent is that because five or six people did that, they should be able to lose their home without cause?”
Advocates crowed in early April when the House of Representatives passed HB 2004. With the backing of House Speaker Tina Kotek and other leaders, the legislation looked like it had a real shot of upending a pre-emption on rent control policies the legislature passed in 1985.
Instead, senators’ objections—fed in no small part by the outcry of the state’s landlord lobby and others—led to the rent control provision being stripped in late May. Even that big change won’t be enough to guarantee passage.
Monroe’s support is particularly important for HB 2004’s fate because of the makeup of Oregon’s senate. Thirteen of the legislative body’s 30 seats belong to Republicans, who have indicated they’ll uniformly vote no on the legislation.
Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is also considered a likely “no” vote (she hasn’t officially announced her position and didn’t get back to us). And since bills deadlocked at a 15-15 vote fail under senate rules, Democrats can’t afford to lose Monroe or another moderate member if the new renter protections are going to succeed.
So more tweaks are on the way. On June 8, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, referred HB 2004 to the Senate Rules Committee, where it will face more amendments. Burdick says that’s not just due to concerns from Monroe and Johnson.
“The two of them probably have been more vocal, but there are others in the caucus who have concerns,” Burdick says. “I certainly had concerns myself about some of the things that are in the house bill coming over.”
Still, Burdick says she’s optimistic the bill has a path forward. She says Monroe “has substantive concerns, which we are addressing. He is not closing the door.”
And he’s not done hearing from advocates, either.
On Saturday, June 10, PTU members jumped on another opportunity to apply pressure on the senator. The group showed up in force to a Gresham town hall event organized by legislators, including Monroe, looking to explain a new proposal to tax corporations.
But Monroe, perhaps hearing of plans to call him out, didn’t show. That left PTU members in a room with four state representatives who all supported HB 2004, and seemed equally concerned that Monroe is waffling.
“A lot of us are here today because we thought Senator Monroe was going to be here, right?” asked state Representative Diego Hernandez, a rookie in the legislature and former tenants’ rights advocate. The room burbled in agreement.
“Every single one of us got elected talking about [housing],” added Representative Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland. “[HB 2004] is the first big thing we did in this session on the House side. We’re gonna keep pushing.”
Monroe wasn’t completely unrepresented at the meeting. PTU, having learned of the senator’s planned absence the day before, brought a nearly full-size cardboard image of Monroe, which advocates stood up in the room and jeered at periodically.
The ersatz Monroe was holding a fake check from the landlord lobby (records show the senator’s campaign committee last year received $10,000 from the Equitable Housing PAC, an offshoot of landlord group Multifamily NW), and affixed with a sign: “Where is Rod Monroe?”