Margot Black speaking at a 2018 press conference outside of City Hall.
Margot Black speaking at a 2018 press conference outside of City Hall. Alex Zielinski

Margot Black, co-founder of Portland Tenants United (PTU), is running to fill the Portland City Council seat vacated by the death of Commissioner Nick Fish.

"Once you get involved in social justice issues, at a certain level, you can't ignore the injustices taking place around you," said Black in an interview with the Mercury. "I need to find a way to keep being part of that, and I need to do it in a way that is most effective. I think City Council's the right place for me to be."

Black, a former math professor at Lewis & Clark, began her tenant advocacy work under PTU about five years ago, where she led grassroots efforts to get state legislators to consider rent control measures, pushed then-candidate Ted Wheeler to adopt a Tenants' Bill of Rights, and helped Commissioner Chloe Eudaly draft Portland's groundbreaking renter relocation assistance policy.

Since then, she's helped organize tenant unions at neglectful apartment complexes, sat on the city's Rental Services Commission, and helped connect countless tenants threatened with an eviction notice with legal aid.

Black's vigorous, uncensored advocacy for tenant rights has made her a divisive figure in both the local landlord community (a group she once compared to terrorists)and among fellow tenant activists.

Black stepped down from her leadership role at PTU in January 2018 after the organization was accused of having a "serious race problem" by prominent activist (now Q Center director) Cameron Whitten.

"I have always come to the work with positive intentions, but in reality the impacts of some of my actions have had very negative impacts on valued members of our community, and created harm," Black wrote on PTU's Facebook page at the time. Black returned to PTU as a co-chair in March 2019.

But now, Black says she feels prepared to take on a bigger leadership role.

"[Since 2018] I've really struggled with trying to figure out what it means to have a voice and hold power in the left as a white person and a woman," Black said. "I've grown. I'm coming at this from a place of wanting this city to be a city where anyone really truly can live and work and find community in a way that’s dignified."

Black said she first considered running for Fish's seat in 2018, but didn't feel the timing was right. With Fish's mid-term death, Black said, she sees an opportunity to take on Fish's unfinished work around affordable housing and "push it into the future."

Black would like to expand the city's investment in permanent supportive housing—a type of housing that offers specialized assistance to keep hard-to-reach, formerly homeless tenants from being evicted. Fish had been an early advocate for city-funded supportive housing.

Black says her mother has a severe mental illness which makes it nearly impossible for her to find stable housing.

"Right now, she's living in a homeless shelter. But she desperately needs supportive housing," Black said. "I’ve spent many sleepless night wondering where people like her are sleeping."

Thanks to Fish's persistence, the City Council approved funding in 2017 to create 2,000 permanent supportive housing units by 2028. Black wants to expand on that goal.

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"I’m doing this as a way to honor Fish and the role he played on council—what he fought for," Black said. "A big part of why I’m running isn't because he died, it was because he lived."

Black is prepared for pushback from Portlanders—especially landlords—on her decision to join the rapidly-growing race.

"Despite the reputation that I have for being a divisive asshole, if you look at my record, you’ll see that I’m principled and opened-minded," Black said. "I have spent an enormous amount of time in very diplomatic conversations with people I disagree with, like landlords. I conduct myself with full integrity and honesty."