PORTLAND RENTERS on Tuesday took the offensive, suggesting temporary fixes to the city's rental crisis and calling on city leaders to consider possible solutions to what the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) calls a "Renter State of Emergency."
As the city's rapid changes spur waves of displacement, CAT spent months researching and identifying possible immediate actions city and county officials could take to protect renters who are losing their homes to no-cause evictions and unsustainable rent hikes. The group planned to propose two possibilities at a September 15 press conference and rally: (1) a temporary ban on no-cause evictions, and (2) extending the notice that landlords must give tenants when raising the rent, an extension that goes into effect if the increase is more than five percent.
Displacement is a difficult issue. Local leaders looking for quick fixes face state preemptions banning solutions like rent control and mandatory affordable housing units in new developments.
That's what makes CAT's proposals intriguing. The group says they could skirt those preemptions. City leaders aren't so sure.
Kurt Creager, new director of the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB), says he sympathizes with families struggling to keep their homes in the current crisis and worries that "we can't act as quickly as we need to."
Creager believes that CAT's idea of extending notice for large rent increases might be most feasible because, legally speaking, asking the legislature for a moratorium on no-cause evictions requires also offering a viable solution after the moratorium period ends.
Reaching consensus on a touchy issue that many would tag as a form of rent control might be doubly difficult during next year's short legislative session, he says.
Creager, just weeks into his job as PHB director, says the larger question is whether or not allowing no-cause evictions is legal under federal fair housing laws. He says he'll ensure that PHB collects data about no-cause evictions.
"We have fair housing concerns about no-cause evictions," he says. "Having that data would determine whether allowing no-cause evictions is having a disparate impact on people who have a disability, or if it's a factor of race or income."
Creager, at least, is willing to get deeper into the specifics of CAT's proposals than local elected officials. Mayor Charlie Hales' communications director, Dana Haynes, referred questions from the Mercury to Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman.
When asked for direct comment on CAT's two possible short-term solutions, Saltzman's policy director, Shannon Callahan, avoided directly addressing the issue, saying the commissioner didn't have time to answer questions from the Mercury on the subject.
Callahan did respond with an email statement saying Saltzman's "very concerned about the issues CAT is raising." Callahan also says the commissioner's exploring legal options and should have an announcement by September 18.
Update: Less than 24 hours later, Saltzman announced a proposal to extend both the notice time required to tenants for no-cause evictions and rent increases. Read more about the specifics in this Blogtown post.
Saltzman and the rest of Portland City Council attended a Tuesday work session, as did Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, where city leaders discussed costs around new affordable housing projects, but didn't get into immediate relief measures.
Asked for comment by the Mercury, Kafoury also avoided directly addressing CAT's proposal, though county spokesman David Austin said via email that the county is working with the city to "identify near-term solutions."
CAT's Tuesday night rally took place after the Mercury's print deadline, but Deputy Director Katrina Holland planned to call on officials for immediate action, saying the crisis feels like a "little earthquake" to affected renters.
"[We're] ranked fourth in the nation for the rate at which rents are rising, while wages remain too low to support the cost of living. People are losing their housing faster than we can keep up," Holland's prepared remarks read. "Within a matter of minutes our world can be completely turned upside down by an envelope on our doors with a note inside that says, 'We are upgrading the building for higher rents,' or, 'It's not personal, I'm just charging what the market will bear.'"
CAT's calling on city leaders to rescue Portlanders stuck in a system where they can't afford rent and can't find a place to live when they're involuntarily booted from their homes.
"Thirty days' notice is not enough, either to move quickly or absorb a shocking rent increase—especially in today's disaster-like housing crisis," says CAT Executive Director Justin Buri. "We recognize current efforts among local leadership to achieve long-term solutions, but we need bold, immediate emergency measures until the rental market stabilizes."