IT'S A WILD-EYED time for tenants in the Portland metro housing market. In 2008, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment cost an average of $847. In 2015, the same apartment goes for an average of $1,432—a 69 percent increase.
Local government, civic, and community groups are scrambling to find solutions. Earlier this month, City Club of Portland launched a study seeking ways to increase access to affordable housing. Among the policies being considered: rent control.
The term is a catch-all for strategies that limit how much landlords can charge tenants. Its purpose is to maintain a certain number of affordable units for middle- and lower-income residents, but options for how to do that are currently limited under state law.
Rent control's a dirty phrase among developers and landlords, who claim the rental market is a supply and demand issue—that if we simply build more units, prices will drop. It's also maligned by some economists. Portland real estate consultant Jerry Johnson recently told Willamette Week it's "an Econ 101-level policy disaster."
But the issue is not quite that simple.
"Econ 101 is about widgets, and housing is a complicated social issue," says Lisa Bates, associate professor at the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. "Comparing the two violates every assumption of Econ 101, since there are a few more classes after that."
The question isn't whether or not rent control would have consequences, Bates says—because it would.
"It's really not even a question for economists at all," she says. "It's a question of what we want our social and political values to be."
Jake Wegmann, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies housing affordability and cost efficiency, says rent control is "the only policy that's up to the task of protecting huge swaths of the population that need it most."
Detractors of rent control policies often cite San Francisco as a disastrous example, considering rents in the Bay Area are among the highest in the country, even with rent control policies in place. But Wegmann, who lived in San Francisco for several years, disagrees.
"I don't think rent control has been a disaster in San Francisco at all," he says. "From a 30,000-foot view, rent control there is protecting about 170,000 of the 380,000 or so units in the city."
Portland, of course, isn't San Francisco.
"We have a much different type of problem here," Bates says. "Supply is a problem, sure, but saying 'we need more housing' doesn't address what's going on."
Adequate, affordable housing is something that we understand as much more than having a roof over one's head, Bates says, and hiding behind the curtain of economics fails to address the repercussions of denying swaths of the population that basic need.
"People say it's a lottery, and if you get rent controlled housing you win, so everyone else loses," Bates says. "Well, with no rent regulation policies, that's what we have going on now."
Losing in Portland's housing market often looks like one of two things: either you're priced out when renewing your lease, or your landlord hands down a no-cause eviction. The latter has happened to Margot Black twice.
"No-cause evictions are standing in the way of any other types of rent control," says Black, an assistant professor of math at Lewis and Clark College. "As long as they're still able to kick us out for no cause, any form of rent control won't do any good."
There's a power dynamic between tenants and landlords, with tenants at a disadvantage. Black says after she and her husband twice moved their family of five, she's thought a lot about that dynamic.
Moving schools/jobs, changing neighborhoods, losing friends, and the upheaval of changing homes: all those things are hard enough on adults, let alone kids, Black says, and yet landlords have that power over families with evictions.
"At the bare minimum, from the moment you receive notice of a no-cause eviction you shouldn't be responsible for any more rent," she says. "They're 100 percent within their rights to do it, but there should be some compensation for the tenants."
That's rent control, or at least one form of it.
An alternate policy—one that San Francisco uses—is vacancy decontrol, which caps the amount a landlord can increase rent when a lease comes up for renewal.
Black's lease is up for renewal next month, and her landlord is jacking her rent up by $200 a month.
"I get a two percent salary increase each year, and rent is going up 16 percent," she says. "We're lucky because we can pay it—our check won't bounce—but we had to pull my son out of piano lessons."
With a policy like vacancy decontrol in place, Black's rent increase would have been at least predictable.
Still, vacancy decontrol only helps incumbent tenants—landlords are free to charge market rates for incoming renters—and detractors say it traps renters in one place while also pitting landlords against tenants.
"It's true that vacancy decontrol tends to set up an adversarial relationship," Wegmann says. "And there's no question that landlords aren't going to make huge improvements to existing buildings, because there's no recompense for them. But there are ways for municipalities to get around that."
It's also true that living in a rent-controlled apartment can be viewed as a "trap," forcing a tenant to remain in an apartment to avoid paying current market prices on a new place. But there are work-arounds for that scenario too, such as lease transfers, where tenants assume someone else's lease so they don't have to start fresh.
It's not a perfect system, Wegmann concedes, but it's one way to battle Portland's escalating housing market.
"Developers can set prices on new units at whatever the market will sustain," he says. "Vacancy decontrol is just one tool among many, and these tools may be the only way to balance the market when rents are going bananas."