Dirk VanderHart

The judge’s signature could hardly have come at a better time for Portland tenant advocates.

Mere days after it became clear that hard-fought efforts to create statewide renter protections were dead in the Oregon Senate, a state tax judge gave Portland’s own nascent protections a huge boost.

In a July 7 opinion, Judge Henry Breithaupt swatted aside landlords’ contention that the relocation payments the city mandated in February violated state law. The payments—anywhere from $2,900 to $4,500 for landlords who evict tenants without cause or raise rents by at least 10 percent—can stay.

And expand, perhaps.

When council passed the relocation ordinance five months ago, even its supporters acknowledged there was a big legal question to answer: Would giving landlords a financial hit for raising rents by 10 percent amount to illegal “rent control,” or was this allowed?

In Breithaupt’s eyes, at least, Portland’s policy is legit (the two landlords who sued have said they’re weighing whether to appeal). And that’s got people like Portland Tenants United organizer Margot Black thinking Portland’s law could be a template for other parts of the state.

Despite setbacks in the legislature, the recent ruling shows that any jurisdiction in Oregon “does have a really powerful tool that it can use,” Black says. “It says, ‘Hey, local jurisdictions, you can do something, and it’s your responsibility to do something.’”

Black’s up front about what she thinks is the first obvious target for future action. After all, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury spoke in favor of renter protections when council passed the controversial policy.

“We have Deborah Kafoury on the record supporting this stuff,” Black says, adding: “If the county drags its feet, we’re prepared to talk about local ballot measures.”

While Portland’s law has fresh legitimacy, it’s not completely clear how it’s working. The city doesn’t yet have a system for registering landlords (it’s working on one), and can’t say how many landlords have paid relocation fees to date, or to how many tenants.

We know it’s legal now. We know it’s been working for a while,” said Jamey Duhamel, policy director for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and a central force behind the relocation ordinance. “What I’d like to see us do is collect some data over the next two months.”

One thing is clear: The law currently includes at least one fairly gaping loophole.

The relocation ordinance has an exemption for “mom and pop” landlords who rent out a single home or unit. That’s created a situation where local landlords have been advised they can create a separate limited liability company (LLC) for each home they rent out, and thus be exempt from having to pay.

It’s a brash dodge of the spirit of the law, but apparently okay.

City Council will perhaps close this loophole on Wednesday, when it takes up a set of recommended changes to the policy, but tenant advocates are quick to point out scads of other potential ways landlords might evade the requirements.

So, yes, these protections are imperfect. But they’re also legal, and all we’ve got.