Jesse Tise

Update, 3/22:

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer spoke with the Mercury after this story was published to emphasize her commitment to tenants' rights and the importance of SB 608's passage.

"[SB 608] did not go far enough, and I've always said that," Keny-Guyer said. "But we have to do things incrementally at the legislature."

She also confirmed that Rep. Paul Evans, the sponsor of HB 2540, formally asked her to withdraw his bill from committee, acknowledging that he didn't support the way tenants' rights advocates were pressuring legislators to address it.

Original Post:

In February, Oregon Democrats trumpeted the state's passage of the country's first statewide rent control bill, attracting national accolades for its novelty and necessity.

The bill, Senate Bill 608, will cap annual rent increases at 7 percent (plus inflation, raising it to around 10 percent) and ban no-cause evictions for tenants who've lived in a building for more than one year.

SB 608 is seen as the state legislature's response to housing advocates' call for stronger renter protections—in the form of rent control—during the 2017 legislative session.

However, those advocates for low-income renters weren't calling for state-controlled rent caps like SB 608 offers.

In fact, they wanted the state to detangle itself from the entire rent control business.

House Bill 2004, introduced by Democratic lawmakers in 2017, would have killed the state's current preemption on local rent restrictions, instead handing the decision over to local governments to hash out. Despite an orchestrated push by renter rights organizations, immigration advocacy groups, and Democratic legislators, HB 2004 was ultimately extinguished on the Senate floor by landlord-friendly lawmakers.

That's why some renter advocates are hesitant to applaud the success of SB 608. Organizers with Portland Tenants United (PTU) argue that the new legislation doesn't go as far as it should to curb exorbitant rent hikes, and still dodges the main concern of tenant advocates: Oregon's statewide preemption on rent control.

"SB 608 is really only protection for middle income renters," says Margot Black, spokesperson for PTU. "People who are already paying 50 percent of their income in rent won't survive a 10 percent rent hike."

Black says this bill still leaves thousands of low income renters financially insecure. PTU wants lawmakers to also promote a House bill that would hand rent control power over to local jurisdictions to decide, instead of state lawmakers.

Called House Bill 2540, the legislation would lift the state rent control preemption on all cities, including Portland. The bill would also require cities with populations below 200,000 (so, any city that isn't Portland) to create its own local standards for rent stabilization.

This specifically includes adopting an ordinance that "controls the rent that may be charged, or the maximum percentage by which rent may be increased, for the rental of a dwelling unit located within the jurisdiction of the city." It's assumed that Portland would be exempt from this requirement because it already has renter protection ordinances and committees in place.

HB 2540 was authored by Rep. Paul Evans, a Democrat representing Monmouth. Evans did not return several calls the Mercury made to his office this week.

Oregon lawmakers who oppose SB 608 argue that it was crafted simply to help a "Portland problem," and ignores the unique needs of smaller towns. Black believes HB 2540 directly responds to this concern by giving the power back to local legislators.

"We don't need to force Portland conversations on small towns. This gives local control to all cities that, unlike Portland, might not have many nonprofits or lawmakers that prioritize renter's needs," says Black. "It's not forcing communities to adopt rent control. It's just forcing them to start having conversations about it."

Katrina Holland, director of the Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT), agrees that smaller communities deserve to write their own rent control rules. But, she doesn't think it should be mandated by the state.

"We heard from our members in smaller towns [in Oregon] say they would like to see a clean lift of the rent control preemption that didn’t come with a caveat, like 2540 does," says Holland. “It is inequitable to mandate that smaller towns jump through unfunded hoops in order to qualify for having local control”

Holland says CAT had worked on a bill that would have lifted the state preemption, but it didn't survive the legislative counsel process—the first hurdle a draft piece of legislation has to pass before becoming an actual bill.

"I want to highlight that the legislative process is a small piece of the puzzle of CAT's longer movement-building strategy," Holland says. She calls SB 608 a "milestone, but not an end goal."

"There are over thirty housing bills in this legislative session, and we are following every single one," she says. "Anything that is going to empower tenants to stay in their home in an equitable manner, we are going to do."

HB 2540 isn't expected to get a hearing in House Committee on Human Services and Housing, which is chaired by Portland Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer. Keny-Guyer did not return the Mercury's emails or calls to clarify why it won't be heard. Keny-Guyer was unable to respond to the Mercury's inquiries before this story was published, but offered an explanation on PTU's Facebook page earlier this week.

"I have heard your message about wanting a hearing for HB 2540 loud and clear," wrote Keny-Guyer, who is taking a leave of absence to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer starting next week. "I will offer a hearing on it later this spring. It doesn't have a chance of passing this year, but it's important to offer a chance for people to air their perspectives on it in prep for consideration in the future."

A spokesperson for House Speaker Tina Kotek, however, did explain why HB 2540 might not be moving forward in the House.

"The Speaker was a chief sponsor of SB 608, which passed last month, and is the strongest statewide tenant protections measure in the country," wrote Danny Moran, Kotek's communications director, in an email to the Mercury.

Kotek was a vocal supporter of 2017's HB 2004, the failed legislation that would have lifted the state rent control ban. But while she still supports dissolving that preemption, Moran notes, "The Speaker is now prioritizing other bills that address increasing the state’s housing supply and provide resources to increase the supply of subsidized affordable housing."

Black doesn't believe rural communities can wait for bills like HB 2540 to make House leadership's priority list.

"This bill is how we preserve low-income communities, right now," says Black. "We don't want to look back in five or ten years and say, 'Gosh, we should have done something.'"