The rent control dream appears dead.
After the Oregon House of Representatives earlier this year passed a bill that would kill the state’s pre-emption on local limits on rent hikes, a senate committee this afternoon chopped that provision before moving the legislation before the full senate.
As part of a package of amendments, the Senate Committee on Human Services approved the removal of that provision, meaning cities and counties likely won’t win permission to adopt so-called "rent stabilization" policies that limit what landlords can charge. The committee had heard from hundreds of renters, advocates, and landlords embroiled in the heated debate over the state’s soaring rent costs.
The vote probably kills the hopes of activists and advocacy groups who’d seen their caused championed by House Speaker Tina Kotek in this year’s legislative session, but could not find much muscular support in the house.
"Extremely disheartening," Katrina Holland, director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, told the Mercury this afternoon.
Margot Black, a founder and leader of the activist group Portland Tenants United, said she’d known for weeks that legislators might make such a decision.
"That’s been the rumor in town," she said. "We had a little come-to-Jesus talk where we asked if we could survive without [getting rid of] the pre-emption."
Both Holland and Black still see promise in the bill that’s now before the full senate. It would prevent landlords from issuing no-cause evictions to tenants who are at least nine months into a month-to-month tenancy (a more lenient standard than six months, which had been in the bill), instead only allowing eviction for a set of "just" causes. The bill would also prevent no-cause evictions within 60 days if a tenant asked for necessary repairs, and prevent a landlord from raising the rents on a tenant more than once every 12 months, among other things.
Those are wins, Black says, but they won’t allow the City of Portland to create a policy for limiting rental increases within the city, which local leaders had pushed for and had been one of PTU’s main goals of the session.
Black says advocates in her coalition had a discussion where they came to the conclusion: "If we had two bills that were rent control and just-cause, and we lost rent control, we would still support just-cause."
Holland found similar reason for optimism.
"We always knew that rent stabilization was going to be a heavy lift," she said. But she noted that "at the end of the day Oregon did make history" when the House passed a version of the bill killing the rent-control pre-emption. "That to us is a win."
The changes inserted into HB 2004 today appeared rooted in the calculus of a full senate vote. For days, advocates had been sending out warning flares that Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, might refuse to approve a bill that included rent control. As Willamette Week noted in a piece earlier this year on the sparse margins of the senate, Monroe is a landlord and appeared to have an outsize say in whether a bill passes or fails.
It was telling, then, that each of the three Democratic senators who approved the amendments today—Sara Gelser and Michael Dembrow of Portland and Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham—expressed regret for doing so.
Housing was the highest priority for constituents when Monnes Anderson ran for election last year. "I don’t think this goes far enough in helping many of those tenants," she said, acknowledging that she’s the landlord of a duplex.
"I’ve just heard from so many people who’ve had sudden unexpected spikes in their rent in the 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent range, and in some cases even higher," Dembrow said. "I assumed that the bill was going to be amended, but I hoped it would be amended in a way that would find a reasonable cap on what a tenant could discover when they got that letter in the mail."
Gelser, who requested the amendment package, bemoaned the fact that the vote she was about to cast wouldn’t "give more tools to local jurisdictions." But she added that her hope in modifying the bill was that it might make it past the senate, suggesting it had no shot with a rent control provision still in place.
Advocates are cautiously watching what happens in the full senate, and aren’t yet counting on the bill passing there.
"We didn’t have an influential enough of a leader in the senate to twist arms on this," Black said. " We just need to do more education. We still just don’t have anything that really talks about what modern rent stabilization looks like."
Remember, Portland currently has a renter relocation fee policy in place that local landlords claim is effectively rent control. It’s being challenged in court.