ONE WOMAN'S apartment had a "wall of cockroaches." Another lived for months with an open flame in her living room after her heater exploded, shooting molten glass into her carpet. Last Wednesday night, September 3, the county Housing and Community Development Commission heard these stories from some of Portland's most unfortunate renters while a team of housing experts presented housing code changes they hope will help crack down on Portland's worst landlords.
After a year of hashing out ideas with landlords and tenants, the county's Quality Rental Housing Workgroup's report argues that the best way to improve conditions for the 43 percent of Portlanders who are renters is to hire six new housing inspectors and restructure fines so that chronic violators (i.e., slumlords) pay bigger fees than good landlords who just make small mistakes.
Right now, a single family home that breaks housing code can be fined only $90 a month—even if its roof is caving in and mold is creeping up every wall. A 20-unit apartment complex where just one unit has those problems is charged based on the size of the whole complex—which racks up to $450—even though it puts about the same number of people in danger. The comparatively measly $90 turns out to not be a strong enough incentive for landlords to splurge on the new heater or annihilating a wall of cockroaches.
The new plan would fine landlords based on the number of units that are unsafe, rather than the number of units in the whole building. Also, the changes would increase the top monthly fine for a single-family home from $90 to $300 and double fines if the problem is not solved within four months.
"One of the things I think [the rule change] does really well is it tries to keep the focus on bad actors—the very small percentage of landlords who are operating on bad faith," said Deborah Imse, of Metro Multifamily Housing.
All these changes are going to cost the city some money, though. The new code would "temporarily" charge landlords $8-10 per unit to help the plan's start-up costs and also asks for a one-time $350,000 check from the city. After it gets up and running, the workgroup estimates they will need $500,000 annually to maintain the inspectors and education programs. Some funding, of course, would come from the pockets of landlords who have to pay the bigger fines.
Landlords are on board with the plan because it also recognizes that tenants sometimes cause problems that landlords have to deal with.
"The collaboration between housing advocates and people representing landlords has been nothing short of revolutionary," says Jeremy Van Keuren, of the mayor's office. "The tenor of conversations I've heard in the past were that the problems were all caused by landlords."
For the first time ever, the new rules would also hold tenants responsible for mold and pest problems they create themselves through negligence or plain dirty living.
The workgroup is taking public comments and working through rewrites on their recommended changes before city council votes on the final plan on September 22.