It's been a matter of heated debate ever since Portland passed a law requiring relocation payments to renters nearly a year ago: Should "mom-and-pop" landlords who only manage one rental unit be exempt from the law?
So far, the Portland City Council has said "yes." The single-unit exemption was passed as part of the initial law in February 2017, and survived a round of tweaks the council made to the law last summer.
Now, renters advocates are making their strongest play yet to get the exemption taken off the books. An analysis being shared by the tenant activist group Portland Tenants United and city council candidate Jo Ann Hardesty purports to give the most comprehensive look to-date at how many units are actually exempt under the loophole—and it's a lot.
According to the new report, fleshed out over the course of three months by a Portland researcher named Meg Hanson, the city contains more than 24,000 units exempt from the renter relocation laws because they are their owners' sole rental property. That accounts for more than 16 percent of the city's total rental units, the report suggests, with more than half the single-family homes and condos up for rent citywide subject to the exemption.
"There’s been this big piece of data that’s been missing from this very important conversation about policy," Hanson tells the Mercury. "This is a huge gap and something that was really important."
The city's mandatory renter relocation policy requires landlords to pay between $2,900 and $4,500 to renters when they either issue a no-cause eviction or cause a tenant to move by raising the rent by at least 10 percent. It's not popular with folks who rent property.
But while the region's landlord lobby has attempted to fight the relocation policy in court (so far unsuccessfully), hearings on the matter have been disproportionately attended by small-time landlords who argue the requirements are too onerous for a "mom-and-pop" outfit. Those pleas have held weight in City Hall, as have the contention of realtors who say the law is convincing small landlords to sell their properties.
Hanson says her study—conducted voluntarily in her free time—was aimed at adding a semblance of data to the discussion.
To arrive at her conclusions, Hanson says she scraped tax data from the Multnomah County Assessor's website. By drilling down, she says she was able to identify with reasonable certainty which properties were not occupied by their owners. She deemed those rental properties, then set about analyzing that data to find which owners only appear to own one rental unit.
"This is a blunt instrument," Hanson concedes. "This study is not intended to split hairs."
Instead, she believes the analysis offers an idea of how much of the rental market is currently exempt from relocation payments. She believes the loophole has created a rental market where tens of thousands of tenants aren't being afforded protections that city leaders have said are necessary for others. Hanson is a renter herself, she notes, and has been friendly with Portland Tenants United, though she characterizes her work as an "independent study."
Earlier this week, Hanson says she met with officials from the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) to go over her findings. According to her characterization, city officials did not take much exception to the study, though they cautioned that vacant units are not allowed for. We've reached out to the Housing Bureau for comment, but have yet to hear back.
In the meantime, the data will be fresh ammo in the most intense argument currently existing around the renter relocation law. At some point in coming months, Portland City Council plans to take up an ordinance making the law permanent—but exactly when isn't clear. Hearings have been repeatedly pushed back as a "technical advisory committee" made up of varying factions debates what a permanent policy should look like.
That debate extends to city council as well. Mayor Ted Wheeler has so far opposed doing away with the single-unit exemption, while Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has supported the move.
Now, more voices are piling on. This afternoon, Hardesty has called a press conference with representatives of PTU and the Community Alliance of Tenants to trumpet the findings in the new report. According to a press release sent out yesterday, Hardesty will also call into question Wheeler's decision to delay a meeting of the city's technical advisory committee, which had been scheduled for this afternoon.
Michael Cox, Wheeler's deputy chief of staff, said today that delay was due to scheduling issues, though he couldn't offer specifics. And he made clear that Wheeler's position hasn't changed.
"The mayor has seen the report that’s referenced," Cox said. "The truth of the matter is that we do not have the kind of quality data we want." While he noted that he wasn't disputing the report's findings, Cox says the only way to know the truth is to require landlords to register their rental properties with the city—a campaign pledge of Wheeler's that is still in the works.
"Nobody’s trying to refute this data," Cox said. "Certainly rental registration would have the kind of quality first-order data that we’re looking for."
Update, 2:47 pm: Wheeler's office has issued a statement addressing the rescheduling of today's meeting, and the mayor's feelings on the single-unit exemption.
"Assumptions don't necessarily make good policy," Wheeler writes in the memo, addressed to members of the technical advisory committee. "Rather good data help to inform the creation of good policy. Consequently, I have instructed PHB to refrain from amending the one-unit exemption at this time."
Wheeler goes onto say he favors the creation of a registry system which would make better data available.
The mayor's instructions to the housing bureau certainly hold sway, but they aren't necessarily the final say. When council ultimately takes up the renter relocation payments again, a vote of three city commissioners would be enough to do away with the exemption. It's not clear such a voting bloc exists.
Here's Wheeler's full letter.