Packed house at City Hall for renters emergency declaration
  • Packed house at City Hall for housing emergency declaration

Portland City Council today passed an ordinance declaring an official housing emergency in the city.

The commissioners unanimously voted to enact an ordinance that will temporarily remove barriers to increasing affordable housing and address Portland's homelessness problem. The emergency declaration also authorizes a proposed request to Governor Kate Brown to officially declare a state of emergency.

"The tools we have now are not adequate," says Mayor Charlie Hales. "We need to be more nimble, more flexible, and swifter in our response."

The declaration allows the city to temporarily use existing buildings (Hales has looked into using an old Army Reserve building) as shelters. The ordinance also allows the city to fund a pilot program to establish day storage facilities where the homeless population can safely store their belongings. This would hopefully reduce the need for unauthorized homeless camps.

Next week, Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman will propose a set of protections for renters, including extending the amount of notice—from either 30 to 60 days to 90 days—a landlord has to give tenants when either serving a no-cause eviction or increasing rent by more than 10 percent. Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed an amendment changing the amount to 5 percent; it passed 4-1, with Saltzman voting against.

Fritz also proposed an amendment to further extend the notice period to 120 days, but was met with opposition because Saltzman and the city's attorneys both expressed concern that 120 days could be considered rent control—which is currently banned under state law—and would incite lawsuits from groups representing landlords and realtors.

"I asked the city attorneys and found that Oregon law really allows local governments to only go so far," Saltzman says. "I believe this not a panacea, but we must fast track these."

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Saltzman is proposing that some of the $30 million Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury committed to spending on new shelter space for hundreds of homeless and affordable housing for more than 1,000 people be earmarked to create a "legal services tenant protection team" to help enforce renters' rights.

The housing emergency declaration is active for one year and allow City Council to extent the declaration on a six month basis.

Justin Buri, Executive Director of the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), in September declared a "renters state of emergency" and asked council to impose a one year moratorium on all no-cause evictions. CAT also requested extending the notice period for any rent increase above 5 percent to one year. Right now landlords must only give 30 days notice when increasing rates.

Buri gave an impassioned speech, and received several loud rounds of applause from the audience, which packed council chambers.

"How many affordable apartment are there in your neighborhood?" Buri asked commissioners. "How long would it take you to move? Now imagine you had bad credit ... Imagine if you had a criminal record?"

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Deborah Imse, Executive Director of Multifamily Northwest (MFNW)—an organization that represents the rental housing industry—testified that the problem comes from "years of under building" during the recession and says the answer is to give developers incentives to build more units.

"We can count the number of cranes in the air right now, building more luxury apartments, but how many of those new apartments will be affordable to low income, or even middle income, tenants?" Buri testified. "When are we going to recognize that building only market rate, luxury apartments, will never trickle down to lower income tenants, no matter how many we build, despite all the zoning changes, cash incentives, and sweetheart deals we offer to developers?"

Following the invited testimony, dozens of citizens testified to city council—many of them shaky, emotional voices—telling commissioners about no-cause evictions and exorbitant rent increases. Testimony went on for several hours prior to council passing the amendment to city code that allows declaration of the state of emergency and a separate vote passing an ordinance declaring a state of emergency. Both votes were unanimous. The council will revisit the proposed renters' protections next week.