The landlords have lost their spark.
In late July, Portland City Council considered a new policy that would require landlords to register each of their rental units with the city’s housing bureau—and pay the city $60 per unit every year. The funds would go toward the city’s burgeoning Rental Services Office, which focuses on overseeing Portland’s relatively new slate of pro-renter regulations and helping educate tenants about their legal rights.
Two years ago, a proposal like this would have packed council chambers with worried landlords, irate lobbyists, and flustered property management companies. A landlord would get into a yelling match with a city commissioner. At least one person would slam their fist on a table.
But the July 31 meeting only brought out a handful of weary-looking landlords to contest the new registration fees. No one raised their voices, and everyone thanked the commissioners for their time. A week later, the new policy was approved.
The past two years have seen an unprecedented rise in pro-renter policymaking in Portland, beginning with Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s hotly debated pitch in 2017 to require landlords to help cover moving fees for their evicted or priced-out tenants. Eudaly’s policy drew a barrage of opposition—and a lawsuit—from Portland landlords who had grown accustomed to a largely unregulated market. But in March 2018, the policy was enshrined by a unanimous City Council vote.
A few months later, the city suggested that all landlords owning older, unstable buildings pay thousands to reinforce their wobbly properties—or warn all who enter their buildings that they might be crushed in an earthquake.
But the tipping point came earlier this year, when Portland property owners were smacked with two pro-tenant policies. One was another city ordinance from Eudaly’s office that would both regulate security deposits and reward landlords who ditch discriminatory screening criteria for prospective tenants. At the same time, the state legislature proposed a bill that would cap annual rent increases at 7 percent and ban no-cause evictions for long-term tenants.
Despite a well-organized outcry from landlords, both policies went into effect.
By the time those registration fees landed in council chambers in July, it seemed the landlord bloc had finally gotten the message: Lawmakers are done with favoring property owners’ wants over tenant’s rights.
That includes Mayor Ted Wheeler. While Wheeler ran in 2016 on a platform to improve renters’ rights, he’s often parroted landlord talking points during City Council meetings. His campaign promises were easily overshadowed by Eudaly’s work to enact meaningful pro-renter policies—and Wheeler seemed content to let Eudaly serve as an easy antagonist for the landlord lobby. But unlike previous tenant-supporting policies, July’s rental registration proposal came from Wheeler’s office—signaling an alliance with Eudaly.
It seems landlords’ last ally may be in Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who plans on leaving office at the end of 2020.
“I would have supported this if it had come to us last year, before all the other changes,” Fritz said on August 7, before casting the lone council vote against the policy. “I agree that we need a rental registration program... However, on top of all the other additional regulations that we’ve put on landlords... it’s regressive.”
Even then, Fritz’s comments felt more like sympathy for a losing team than support.
The shift in City Hall’s landlord appeal can only mean one of two things: Either Portland’s pro-tenant movement has successfully made renters’ rights mainstream, or the landlord lobby is simply licking its wounds before mounting another fight.