Mercury Staff

DISCRIMINATORY LANDLORDS. Steep rent increases. Tenants afraid to ask for repairs for fear they'll be evicted. Children with asthma likely caused from damp apartments riddled with black mold.

Stories like these—told in anger or through tears—emerged forcefully on Saturday, January 9, when more than 300 community members packed into an East Portland event hall to share with 15 metro-area legislators their messages about the city's housing crisis. Among those at the forum were House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland); Senator Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), co-chair of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee; and Senate President Pro Tempore Diane Rosenbaum (D-Portland).

Those heavy-hitters' presence offers a preview of what's ahead. Housing has become the hottest topic for lawmakers going into 2016's short legislative session, and there are multiple bills in the works that could offer increased renter protections and dedicated money for creating and retaining affordable units.

After disappointment in 2015 following the defeat of House Bill 2564—which would have lifted Oregon's ban on requiring developers to include affordable units in new construction, known as inclusionary zoning (IZ)—affordable housing advocates were worried that the 36-day 2016 session would prove too short to push through new legislation.

But as Saturday's impressive turnout highlighted, and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales officially announced in September: Oregon is in a housing crisis, and tenants can't wait for the 2017 legislature to fix it.

Kotek said after the forum that she'll be exploring all avenues for getting renter-relief measures in place, including the idea that a state-wide housing shortage could be considered a "man-made disaster" and allow a temporary suspension of Oregon's ban on rent control.

"We do have an emergency situation in this state," Kotek said. "We need stability for our tenants."

Kotek says her priorities for the 2016 session include the reinstatement of Oregon's general assistance program—which provides a cash safety net for people waiting to get on government assistance programs so they don't end up destitute—and finding $10 million in one-time emergency housing and shelter funds "to help [Oregon] get through one more year."

Those proposals would add to a growing pile of housing legislation.

Senator Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) announced in December that he's planning to introduce a new bill that would lift the statewide ban on IZ—something Portland City Council has made a central lobbying goal this year.

And state Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland), who co-hosted Saturday's forum, says she's negotiating aspects of a bill that would allocate $17.5 million more for affordable housing preservation.

Keny-Guyer's bill would find funding by allowing municipalities to increase the amount of money they set aside for affordable housing when collecting document recording fees from real estate transactions. Right now that amount is capped at $20 of the $45 recording fee.

The bill would also offer an exemption from the capital gains tax for property owners who are willing to sell properties—possibly at less than market rate—to organizations that provide affordable housing.

"As a state, we put very, very little into affordable housing, compared to the billions we put into things like health care and education," she says. "But we really need the private sector to step up and help solve the problem too."

According to many of the dozens of people who testified on Saturday, it's landlords in the private sector who are often to blame. Tenants spoke of doubling rents, blatant disregard for safety and health hazards at their properties, and merciless no-cause terminations.

Keny-Guyer said that when she was organizing the forum, she wanted a roster of speakers who would illustrate to the panel of lawmakers that people from all walks of life are feeling the effects of the housing crisis.

"It's to the point where more and more people are becoming cost-burdened by rent, and the vacancy rates are so low that people can't find housing," Keny-Guyer says. "It's not just a financial issue, it's about the anxiety it creates in families, kids who have to change schools, businesses that are hurt when people don't have disposable income because they're paying so much for housing."