NEW WINDOWS were the first sign of trouble. The Brentwood-Pinecrest Apartments in North Portland were getting a facelift from the new owners, who were also promising other amenities, such as online bill payment.
"It was after the new windows that the people in the other building all got their eviction notices. It was the beginning of June and they had to be out by the end of July," says Jeri Jimenez, who lived in the apartments for seven years until she was kicked out. "So when they told our building we were getting new windows we all knew what was coming."
The eviction notices came at the beginning of July. Jimenez and her neighbors had to be out by the end of August. The property had become too valuable; it was time for a more moneyed class of tenants to move in.
"The Summer of Evictions" is what Portland's Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) is calling the past few months.
Executive Director Justin Buri says volunteers at CAT have seen a huge increase in people calling their hotline asking for help in dealing with no-cause evictions and drastic rent hikes—which can lead to involuntary eviction when a tenant can't afford the increase. In addition to declaring a "Renter State of Emergency," the nonprofit, which works to uphold tenant rights, is launching a social media campaign, working to gather stories of people being forced to leave their homes in hopes that community leaders will start acting with the urgency they'd give a wildfire or flood.
"Through no fault of [their] own, huge numbers of renters are facing unsustainable rent increases or are simply being evicted," a news release from CAT reads. "More and more of us are losing our housing security... renters are experiencing mental and physical health impacts, disruption of children's stability and education, loss of access to transportation, training, and jobs, and a lost sense of community and belonging."
Part of the reason Portland is experiencing a housing emergency is the existence of statewide laws that ban local governments from enacting rent-control mechanisms or requiring developers to include a certain number of affordable units in new construction.
As the Portland area becomes a popular destination for burgeoning tech companies—as well as a record number of new residents—the supply of apartments has been exhausted, inspiring landlords to realize they can charge much more for their units, largely unchecked by regulations.
The Oregon statute banning rent control does note that local governments can enact temporary rent-control measures "when a natural or man-made disaster that materially eliminates a significant portion of the rental housing supply occurs," but adds that those controls must be removed once the supply is "restored to substantially normal levels."
When the Mercury asked Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman's policy director, Shannon Callahan, if the lack of affordable housing in Portland might qualify as a man-made disaster, Callahan pointed out that because housing is not being destroyed—in fact, Portland is gaining thousands of new apartments each year—this provision likely wouldn't hold water.
- Shelby R. King
But community leaders agree we're in a crisis state and need more affordable housing—which has inspired CAT to declare a citywide state of emergency.
When a government declares a state of emergency—following an earthquake or during a wildfire, for example—it allows agencies to dedicate allocated resources to the situation at hand. It activates emergency response plans and statutory immunities. It often suspends and waives rules and regulations while streamlining certain administrative procedures.
Portland leaders can't declare an official state of emergency the way the governor or the president can, but that doesn't mean their hands are tied. Other cities have taken steps to temporarily alleviate the burden of real estate markets that are blowing up and leaving vulnerable tenants in the cold.
In Vancouver, Washington—where there's also a statewide ban on rent control—Mayor Tim Leavitt says city leaders noticed at the beginning of 2015 there was a marked uptick in building-wide evictions and giant rent increases, leading to homelessness and community concern. Leavitt formed a task force to come up with viable renter protections.
"We figured out in our community that dozens of families were being given 20 days' notice to find a new place to live," Leavitt says. "It triggered a community uproar."
Washington laws allow landlords to evict tenants for no cause with just 20 days' prior notification, whereas in Oregon tenants get either 30 or 60, depending on the length of tenancy. According to Leavitt, the city is trying to extend the length, adding that Assistant City Attorney Philip Gigler hasn't found any legal reason why this violates statewide statute around rent control. The Vancouver task force also recommends extending the amount of notice landlords must give tenants before raising their rents, from 30 to 45 days.
Could this work in Oregon? Buri thinks it might, and says he's found at least one attorney who agrees. Here's why: Oregon requires landlords to give at least 30 days' warning when raising rents or evicting tenants. But that doesn't necessarily mean local governments can't extend that amount of time, Buri argues.
"We've always been searching for solutions against unfair no-cause evictions and unreasonable rent increases, but at the moment the situation is particularly dire," he says. "People are being forced out of their homes and into one of the worst markets ever. And we're getting calls from tenants who have lost all hope they're going to be able to find safe and affordable housing."
According to Buri, volunteers at CAT's hotline typically receive one or two calls a year from distraught tenants who are so hopeless they're considering self-harm. But recently, volunteers have been reporting two or three such calls each month. CAT administrators are considering getting hotline workers specially trained to deal with suicidal callers.
- Shelby R. King
That may feel like an extreme reaction to an eviction, but displacement can ruin lives. A 2013 study published by Oxford University identified evictions as a factor in keeping families from qualifying for housing programs, while linking the effects of being evicted to psychological trauma, called it a risk factor for suicide, and proved that mothers who have been recently evicted are at an increased risk of depression.
In addition, the same study showed that landlords often turn away tenants with evictions on their records—sometimes sending them into prolonged homelessness, and frequently forcing displaced tenants to "accept substandard conditions in disadvantaged neighborhoods."
Jensi Albright, who works with CAT, says workers and volunteers have noticed a sharp increase in the number of people getting evicted for no cause—which is still legal in Oregon. It began slowly a few years ago, Albright says, but in the last several months has gotten worse, as the population boom and job market outpace apartment construction and drive up prices.
Real estate brokerage firm Marcus & Millichap predict a total of 35,000 new jobs—mostly in the health care and tech industries—will be added in the Portland metro area by the end of 2015, which is 4,000 more than 2014. Developers will add 5,700 new apartments in 2015, according to Marcus & Millichap. Of course, not all of those new jobs will be taken by newcomers—but considering tech workers looking for comparatively low-cost living are moving to Portland in droves from places like Seattle and San Francisco, it's likely many of those new jobs will mean new Portland residents, all vying for a limited housing supply.
This supply-demand problem has made it virtually impossible to find affordable housing—defined as rent that's 30 percent or less of a person's monthly income—in the area. Research from Portland State University indicated that between 2005 and 2009, approximately 122,000 households in Multnomah County are cost-burdened by paying more than the prescribed 30 percent.
According to data from Portland's 2015 State of Housing Report, a three-person household earning 60 percent of the area's median family income brings home $39,270 a year. However, a family at that income level can afford to live in a two-bedroom home in only 11 of the 24 areas analyzed for the report.
"It's not like this is completely new, but the frequency with which we're seeing rent hikes that people can't afford is heartbreaking," CAT's Albright says. "It's really scary to hear that entire buildings that used to be affordable are pushing people out."
Oregon allows landlords to increase the rent as much as they want. Advocates of this policy claim the market will regulate itself—and landlords have a soft rule that a 3 percent increase each year is typical and expected—but in a booming market like Portland, landlords are finding tenants new to the area will pay exorbitant rents, and in response are blowing the roof off the 3 percent rule.
CAT workers report several instances of entire apartment buildings being cleared of renters. Buri ticked off at least three buildings in the last several months that CAT knew of, including the Brentwood-Pinecrest complex. It's a nice place: Two, two-story buildings with brick trim located on N. Rosa Parks.
"That apartment had a very low turnover rate," Buri says. "The tenants who lived there didn't expect to have to move, and it was really hard on a lot of them, being evicted."
Jeri Jimenez, 54, was one of those tenants.
Jimenez moved into her apartment in the Pinecrest building in 2008. She paid $700 a month for her one bedroom and says it was in the perfect location—right across from Peninsula Park—for her grandchildren to come visit her.
"Most of us who lived in those buildings thought we were going to live there for the rest of our lives," she says. "Getting evicted was really depressing; it really put me under. This summer I had the most horrendous time trying to find an apartment."
Situations just like this have been playing out all over the Portland area: Owners learn their properties are worth more to investors, so they decide to sell. The new owner takes over, kicks everyone out, does some cosmetic remodeling, and increases rents for a new set of tenants.
CAT isn't alone in their concern for what low vacancy rates, increasing rents, heavy in-migration, and steady gentrification are doing to Portland's once-reasonable housing market. Groups like the Portland Renters' Assembly, as well as online activist groups such as PDX Renters Unite!, Anti-Displacement PDX, and That's a Goddamned Shed, are all looking for solutions to a housing market that's pricing people out of the homes, and sometimes the city, that they love.
Portlanders trying to affect change have long organized and taken action, and people fed up with this issue are doing the same. Joe Clement, who's part of PDX Renters Unite!, says he was forced to move from his Sellwood home when new owners served him and his roommates with a no-cause eviction notice a few years back.
Clement was one of the organizers of a rally and march on Friday, August 28, that started at Portland City Hall, where Clement and others, like Ibrahim Mubarak of Right 2 Dream Too, spoke to a crowd of about 50 people before taking to the streets. They marched down SW Madison and across the Hawthorne Bridge, ending at the Multnomah County building.
- Shelby R. King
The following day, East Portland residents packed the cafeteria at David Douglas High School for an anti-displacement workshop put on by the East Portland Action Plan committee, aimed at giving residents tools to fight involuntary displacement. Later that afternoon, CAT asked volunteers to come to their Northeast Portland office to make signs for an upcoming press conference where CAT plans to formally announce its "Renter State of Emergency."
Is Portland's rental market really in a state of emergency? Some people see new multi-family developments going up and assume that once they start admitting tenants, the market will sort itself out and prices will drop. That may be the case, but others see people losing their homes and families being displaced, and think the problem needs to be solved now. If we look at the mobilization of different groups—from grassroots activists like the Portland Renters' Assembly to well-known organizations like the City Club of Portland—the movement around the city seems to indicate everyone knows there's a problem.
"It's a complete crisis," Brendan Finn, Commissioner Saltzman's chief of staff, said to the Multnomah County Commission during a September 3 public hearing.
Even Portland Mayor Charlie Hales—who's seeking reelection next year—took to Facebook recently with a humblebrag about what his office has been doing to address the city's lack of affordable housing.
"I'll admit, we have been focusing perhaps too much on results, and perhaps not enough on 'messaging.' Thus some erroneous talk that we are not doing anything," he wrote. "Clearly, we are not doing enough."
- Molly Mendoza