The plan by the Portland Housing Bureau, weeks in the works, follows intense publicity and consternation over a recent housing audit—a first for the city—in which 2/3 of would-be rental applicants reported facing discrimination. Those landlord names have since been forwarded to state authorities for further investigation. It comes as Portland completes a citywide review of "housing impediments," required every five years to keep the city eligible for federal grants.
Fish mustered a show of support for the plan in a city hall press conference, bringing in both tenant and landlord advocates, but also heavy hitter from government: Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, and John Trasviña, assistant secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Under the plan, expected to head before Portland City Council this summer, the bureau would begin paying for regular testing of rental properties, with a pledge to report those results at least annually. Fish also persuaded the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, the state's largest landlord advocacy group, to begin its own testing regimen, with those results also to be made public. A panel would be created to ride herd on both the city and Multnomah County.
The housing bureau would also work more closely with Avakian's office and federal officials to tailor the kinds of information testers produce, a bid to strengthen (and increase the number of) any cases brought against landlords who defy fair housing laws. And the bureau wants to make it easier for victims to navigate a complaint process that Fish has called "byzantine."
"We will do more testing. We will go deeper and broader. And the industry has committed to doing its own testing," Fish said.
But not everyone is convinced the city has done—or will do—enough. The Oregonian today, citing emails it obtained from housing officials, tried to imply it helped drive Fish's added emphasis on enforcement. (The paper still didn't mention its own late arrival to the issue of urgent enforcement.)
"What was alarming was the city's response. Whenever it come to discrimination, it always comes to that phrase: 'We need to change the hearts and minds of people,'" Daryl Dixon, Multnomah County's diversity director, said during a public hearing following the press conference. "Robert F. Kennedy didn't wait for the hearts and minds of southern racists when he sent in the National Guard... You need to enforce the law."
Dixon was referring, in part, to pledges by city and state officials to also boost funding for outreach, both among tenants and landlords. Avakian, during the press conference, had defended the multi-pronged approach.
"Whether through private action, or state or federal prosecution, we don't eradicate housing discrimination only through enforcement actions," said Avakian, whose office launched 300 discrimination probes over the past three years. "The single case of discrimination prosecuted to the end doesn't change the hearts and minds of the community.
"It's not a typical thing for you to see community groups, local government, state government, and and the federal government all in the same place on the same issue, and that's what you have here."
Those softer, more collaborative approaches offered by Fish include plans to boost funding for tenant education seminars, and also—although these goals are fraught with economic uncertainty and political challenges—to seek a housing bond and help encourage the creation of more affordable housing in the city. He also wants to make gentrification—actually using the word—as part of his housing plan.
Just commissioning the rental audit was a departure for Portland, Fish said. Previously when studying housing hurdles, Fish said, officials would invite victims to testify, but collect only anecdotal evidence. The audit for the first time put startling numbers behind the phenomenon.
But will future results continue to be sent on for enforcement?
"It's certainly possible," Fish said. "We'll be guided by officials who do this work It's our intention, if the data supports it, to forward it on for enforcement."