Dirk VanderHart

Portland currently has no way of tracking the number of rental units on the market. The city also lacks a comprehensive database of structural updates to rental properties, housing code compliance reports, or tenant complaints. Perhaps most importantly, the city has no organized system to track information on negligent landlords.

This morning, Portland city commissioners will vote on a policy to create this type of missing dataset, a fix proponents say will help protect Portland tenants' tenuous rights. The "Residential Rental Registration Program," will require all landlords register their properties with the city and be subject to routine inspections. According to Mayor Ted Wheeler's office, the program could also enshrine tenants' rights trainings, track legal representation for households threatened with eviction, help facilitate landlord-tenant mediation services, track rent prices, and collect what seems like a bottomless supply of other crucial data.

According to Sophia June, a spokesperson for Wheeler's office, landlords will be expected to register by April 15, 2019 if this vote passes. Landlords won't face penalty fees or registration costs during the program's first year.

"The rental registration system will benefit current and potential tenants by giving the city access to real-time data, which will help direct policies to better address Portland’s housing crisis,” said Wheeler in a Tuesday press release.

It's an idea that's been brewing in the Portland tenants' rights community well before before Wheeler entered city hall—but his administration's creation of a Rental Services Commission (made up of both tenants and landlords) helped galvanize the program's creation.

The city's budget office estimates the program will cost $648,000 to get off the ground within the next year, and an annual reoccurring cost of $565,000 to keep it running. That initial cost will be covered by 2018-2019 budget funds specifically earmarked for this program, a budget slice from the Office Management and Finance, and from funds the council will squeeze out of the coming fall "budget bump." (More on that here).

Portland isn't the first to come up with this model. A number of other rent-strapped cities across the West Coast (and beyond) have already incorporated this kind of registry.

Seattle's rental registration program, approved by city council in 2012, primarily focuses on rental inspection standards, with the city keeping records on landlord neglect or refusal to keep a property up to code. The program partially relies on the city conducting random inspections on rental units—regardless of whether or not tenants have reported a problem—to protect tenants who may avoid filing a complaint for fear of landlord retaliation. Landlords who don't register their property are stuck with serious fines.

But the program is still working out a few kinks. According to our sister paper the Stranger, the city's inspection program gives landlords 60 days to prepare for an investigation and tells landlords exactly which units it will inspect—not allowing the city to conduct a realistic survey of a rental unit. Tenants say the program doesn't incentivize landlords to make permanent improvements.

Gresham has a smaller, yet similar program, with city employees prioritizing tenant protections by conducting randomized inspections. Meanwhile, Eugene's 23-year-old rental registration policy solely relies on tenant complaints to start an investigation.

Other jurisdictions, like Baltimore County, Maryland, have used rental registration mandates to create a public, searchable database for all rental units in a region. For some cities, like Boston, that data can be used by the city to track landlords who consistently fail rental inspections.

In Portland, this kind of data collection could help the city avoid unexpected data dumps from outside investigators—like the meticulous research that informed the city council's decision to make the city's renter relocation program apply to single-unit-owning landlords.

The exact use for a Portland registry remains undefined—for now. Today's council discussion and vote could kick off a conversation that will start focusing the program's purpose. Stay tuned.