Jack Pollock

Almost two years ago, apartment vacancy rates in Portland dropped under five percent. This marked a critical juncture in Portland housing, since experts say anything below five percent represents a seller's market in which landlords control the shots. Yet, in spite of ominous warning signs of a housing crunch, the City of Portland has been slow to take the edge off the impending crisis. Worse yet, as proposed solutions fail to materialize, the area's population continues to swell relentlessly.

The last time Portland faced such a crisis was in 1994, when vacancy rates dropped below three percent. The private sector responded by flooding the market with new apartments, along with upgrading older ones. This overabundance, however, quickly dried up, as Portland saw a population growth rate of 25 percent--faster than that of both Seattle and San Francisco during the latter half of the '90s.

Not surprisingly, those most affected by the recent population explosion are Portland's working-class and student residents. While the mid-'90s housing boom swamped the market with mid-range apartments, it did little to address the needs of lower income residents. A recent report by Metro, the regional government for tri-counties, found that rents in NE and SE Portland "have skyrocketed, causing displacement of many residents no longer able to afford to remain in their neighborhood." In addition, the study concluded that the number of households earning less than $26,000 annually have increased from 1990 to 1997, while the number of affordable housing units have actually decreased.

City Commissioner Erik Sten, who oversees the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, recognizes that the lack of affordable housing is a looming problem. But even with heightened attention on affordable housing, Sten admits they are a long way from solving the problem. "We have good strategies," notes Sten. "The biggest thing we're lacking in Portland is money."

The problem lies in the difficulty of closing the gap between good intentions and practical reality. In order to adequately meet the city's needs, Sten admits that housing production would need to double or triple--something that's not currently possible.

Sten shrugs off other solutions, such as rent control, due to his belief in "supply-driven" strategies. Besides, he points to cities like San Francisco and New York whose rent control has failed to solve their housing problems.

As such, without "rent control" or other regulations on City Council's table, it looks as if much of the housing market will be left to the whims and mercy of landlords. As the housing supply continues to dwindle, control will continue to shift in favor of the landlords.

Ultimately, Sten believes that more public action is needed to overcome the shortfall the city cannot cover. But organization on that front has thus far been slow. While tenant unions have long been a staple in other states, Oregon was without one until late 1997. In comparison, Washington has had tenant unions for the past 25 years and the gains have been notable. In recent years, Seattle tenant unions, in the midst of their own housing crunch, successfully scored minor victories with establishing a sixty-day rent increase notice and so-called "just-cause" eviction, where landlords must justify the reason for booting any tenant.

In Oregon, a historically relaxed housing market has protected tenants from suffering too severely at the hands of landlords. But the recent tightening of the market has begun to raise awareness.

"As the housing crisis shoots up," explains Angel Williamson, an employee of the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), "we can't take it anymore, we need to get organized, we need to make changes."

Out of such frustration, CAT has emerged as the Lone Ranger for tenant's rights. With a membership just below nine hundred tenants statewide, CAT has found it difficult to leverage much political power. But, in spite of their sluggish start, CAT is expanding rapidly. In the past six months their paid staff has nearly doubled, from four to seven. They've also recently launched a door-to-door campaign focusing on educating tenants and recruiting members. Perhaps most importantly, though, members of CAT have traveled to Salem weekly to lobby legislators for protection of tenants.

But, both outgunned and outmanned, CAT is the David amongst a field of landlord-supported Goliaths. CAT's current campaign to persuade lawmakers to consider two tenant-friendly bills so far has failed to make headway. Both HB 3400, which would fund an affordable housing district in Portland from a real-estate transfer tax, and HB 2532, which would prohibit landlords from discriminating against people who receive federal rent subsidies, are almost certain to fail.