Precisely six months ago today, Portland City Council took what felt like a drastic step. On October 7, as outcry over rent increases and wide-spread evictions reached a boiling point among housing activists, the city formally declared a housing state of emergency.

Those same advocates now say the months that have followed haven't offered enough progress. In a raucous and at times tearful demonstration in front of Multnomah County's headquarters this morning, around 100 demonstrators made a fresh cry for a freeze on the city's skyrocketing rents, and a moratorium on the no-cause evictions that have turned people out of some buildings en masse.

"We’re not alone and we’re not crazy," said Margot Black, an assistant professor of math at Lewis and Clark College and leader of Portland Tenants United, which organized the demonstration. "We’re not losers just because we didn't buy houses."

The demand the crowd made this morning is a familiar one. Since at least last summer, groups like the Community Alliance of Tenants have argued the city's housing shortage constitutes a "man-made disaster," a designation that could allow the city or county to enact rent control despite a state preemption.

They point out services like Airbnb, which has replaced some permanent housing in the city with short-term rentals (and led to some dodgy situations).

"The fact is more and more people are being pushed out of the city and into the streets," said Justin Norton-Kertson, an activist with Portland Tenants United.


The rental landscape has changed since the state of emergency was declared six months ago. While much of the effort surrounding that declaration has gone toward slashing the city's homelessness problem, the city has also taken steps toward helping renters. Portland officials extended the notice landlords are required to give before raising rents by more than 5 percent or issuing a no-cause eviction.

Stronger provisions emerged on the state level during this year's legislative session, when the General Assembly banned landlords from jacking up tenants' rents during the first year of a month-to-month lease, and mandated three months' notice for increases after that.

"Those aren't actually protections," Black said this morning. "They give you a little bit more time to deal with the trauma. They are snooze buttons."


Here's the thing about the demands activists are making: It's not completely clear they're viable. That is, even if Multnomah County agreed to stop rent increases and no-cause evictions on the basis of a man-made housing disaster, no one seems to know if it'd stand up to the inevitable legal challenge.

"It's pretty undefined," says Nick Caleb, a local housing activist and attorney. Caleb says the background of the state's rent control preemption needs to be researched, to determine what precisely legislators meant by the disaster language.

As we've noted, the law applies to a disaster that "materially eliminates a significant portion of the rental housing supply." Portland's issues are largely based on failing to build housing, not eliminating existing housing.

UPDATE, 12:55 pm: Multnomah County spokesperson Dave Austin says the language of that law precludes county officials from enacting rent controls. He tells the Mercury change will have to come from Salem before the county can take stronger steps toward protecting tenants.

"The point they’re making that rents are skyrocketing, that the [economic] recovery isn’t for everyone—we 100 percent agree with that," Austin says. But he adds: "There is nothing under current state statute that allows us to do what they’re asking. We can’t just say we’re gonna enact something and face legal action from a bunch of people."

Original post:

This morning's demonstration was sprinkled with a handful of candidates for office: Mayoral candidates Sarah Iannarone, Jessie Sponberg, David Schor, Bruce Broussard and Steven Entwisle were on hand (Jules Bailey was helping preside over a county commission meeting inside the building, and Sean Davis tells me he was there). So were was city council candidates Chloe Eudaly and Bruce Broussard.

I asked Iannarone if she thought the "man-made disaster" argument would fly. She didn't know, but seemed interested in pursuing it.

"We play loose and fast with the rules all the time to achieve desired outcomes," she said. "That's what government does. We should avail ourselves of all possibilities."

Housing, obviously, has been the central issue of the Portland political season, with practically every candidate offering ideas for easing the city's brutal growing pains. Schor, who works at the Oregon Department of Justice, has suggested a tax on rich Portlanders to pay for affordable housing. State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has floated a tenant bill of rights.

Following the demonstration, activists filed into the county commission meeting to tell stories of unreasonable rent increases, and argue (and cheer and scream and curse) for their demands for more than an hour. Commissioners listened—sometimes nodding, mostly impassive—as the crowd seemed to grow angrier and angrier.

"I'm being brought to court for something I can't fight," said one woman, who described a no-cause eviction she was recently served with. It's threatening to put her back on the street after she'd spent years homelessness. The woman powerfully talked of the joys of being able to be naked in her own home, after having "to be dressed 24/7 in case a cop pounds on your tent, if you can have a tent."

"What do I do?" she asked. "What can you do to end this today? This madness needs to stop."

"I don't think I need to enumerate that this is a disaster," Black said, pressing for action. "Clearly we are in a disaster clearly it is man made." She went on to argue housing has been "materially eliminated," as required by the preemption law, by steep rent increases and discriminatory housing practices.

"Declare a rent freeze today," Black said. "Think about the legacy that you want to leave behind."

It got to the point that audience shouting was more prevalent than testimony, and after nearly an hour and a half, County Chair Deborah Kafoury announced the board had to move onto other agenda item.

"They're ain't no fucking other agenda item today!" someone in the crowd yelled.

A few minutes later, Kafoury called a recess, and commissioners filed out to chants.

If nothing ultimately comes of the demonstration? "We start talking about a rent strike," Black said.