k. marie

The signature renter protection to emerge from Portland’s housing emergency has a soft spot for small-timers.

Last year, Portland City Council passed a new law requiring landlords to pay between $2,900 and $4,500 in relocation assistance to tenants they bounce with no-cause evictions or rent increases of at least 10 percent. It was money to help soften the disorienting blows being dealt to renters at a time when entire buildings full of tenants were being unceremoniously evicted.

But the law has its limits: So-called “mom-and-pop” landlords who rent out only a single apartment or home are still free to raise rents and evict without cause and not pay the fees.

This “single-unit exemption” has been an item of heated contention as Portland City Council prepares to make the relocation law permanent in the near future. Now, with a new study purporting to shine a light on the loophole, it’s become a political football in upcoming city elections, too.

“The people who are supposed to lead us are backing away from the critical issue of protecting people’s homes,” Jo Ann Hardesty, an NAACP leader, former state representative, and city council candidate said at a press conference on Friday, January 19. “If our leaders won’t lead, then the people will lead them.”

Hardesty was lambasting city council—and particularly Mayor Ted Wheeler—in response to a new analysis aimed at showing just how many people are affected by the “mom-and-pop” exemption. It’s a lot.

According to the report, fleshed out over the course of three months by a Portland researcher named Meg Hanson, more than 24,000 units are exempt from the renter relocation law 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 available 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 told the Mercury last week. “This is a huge gap and something that was really important.”

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 get a sense of which properties weren’t occupied by their owners. She labeled those rentals, then analyzed them to find owners who appeared to own only one rental unit.

“This is a blunt instrument,” says Hanson, who notes that Portland Housing Bureau staff did not voice any major concern with her methodology. “This study is not intended to split hairs.”

The report arrives at an interesting time. For months, a volunteer advisory committee has been working to shape the relocation payment law into a form that can be implemented in perpetuity. A current, temporary version of the law expires in April, and the city council is expected to enact a permanent policy before that happens.

The single-unit exemption was always going to be a sticking point in that discussion, but substantive data on the effect of the loophole has been hard to come by.

Tenant advocates say Hanson’s analysis changes things, showing that tens of thousands of renters are being denied a protection available to many others—and they’re quick to offer up real-life examples.

Last week’s press conference featured a Portland attorney named Candice Aiston, who described receiving a 90-day notice that she’d have to leave her home last fall. Aiston said she “felt like a failure telling my kids we’re moving. Again.” She’d become momentarily hopeful when she learned the relocation payment law might cover most of her $5,000 moving expenses, she said, but then realized it didn’t apply to her. She was her landlord’s sole tenant.

Realtors have attempted to marshal data of their own. In a hearing last October, Jane Leo, a lobbyist for the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, suggested to the city council that hundreds of single-family rentals had been sold or put up for sale following the renter relocation law, because landlords didn’t want to deal with the policy. Leo did not elaborate on how she arrived at her figures, and has yet to respond to multiple messages left by the Mercury.

Wheeler, for now, is siding with the landlords, saying he wants more clarity on how the single-unit exemption is actually impacting tenants. “Assumptions don’t necessarily make good policy,” Wheeler wrote last week, in a letter addressed to the committee haggling over changes to the relocation policy. “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.”

It’s not that Wheeler is “philosophically opposed” to doing away with the loophole, he wrote. He just wants different data.

“I support the creation of the Rental Registration System, which will provide us with quality data to help us better understanding [sic] of what specific steps are appropriate for our housing market, and a better sense of the consequences—both intended or unintended—of our policy choices,” the mayor’s letter read.

Wheeler’s been promising a rental registry since his 2016 campaign for mayor, and his first budget allocated around $915,000 for a “Renter-Owner Services office” that would administer such a program. But a registry system hasn’t begun, and the new office—now known as the Office of Rental Services—is still figuring out which data points the city might want to collect.

Wheeler, of course, doesn’t have final say in what happens with the single-unit landlord exemption. That decision will be made by Portland City Council as a whole—and the battle lines of the discussion are blurry so far.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz supports the single-landlord exemption, her office confirms, while Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has repeatedly tried to do away with the loophole. The split probably gives commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman decisive votes should Eudaly want to force the issue (as she did in October), and their offices haven’t offered clarity on their positions.

While they figure it out, the council can count on being raked over the rhetorical coals by people like Hardesty, who’s vying for the city council seat Saltzman is giving up.

“I am so disappointed that the mayor and city council are not acting like it’s an emergency,” she said last week. “We will present this report to city council, and we will demand action.”