More than 300 people packed a conference room Saturday afternoon at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in outer northeast Portland.
They were there to talk about affordable housing. And evictions. And drastic rent increases that have displaced hundreds of Portlanders from the neighborhoods they want to live in.
Among the attendees were 17 state lawmakers who represent the Portland metro region, including House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North Portland); Senate President Pro Tempore Diane Rosenbaum (D-Southeast Portland); and Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin), co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee.
For two hours, seven panels of speakers testified about how the housing crisis is affecting Portlanders.
One person spoke of a friend who deeply valued the solitude, stability and peace his home gave him. The stress of a no-cause eviction notice and attempts to find a new home he could afford led him to commit suicide.
Another person talked, through tears, of the rent on her home – close to where she works and where her son goes to school – taking up more than 50 percent of her income.
Two hours of stories that conveyed profound stress, trauma and despair.
Legislators got the message.
“I’m just mad,” Kotek said at the end of the forum. “I am mad because this is not what we want our state to be. I don’t want to hear these stories. I don’t want people not to have affordable, stable housing. We have a problem, and we need to solve it.”
STREET ROOTS EDITORIAL: Legislation essential to ending housing crisis
Legislation to stem the housing crisis is expected to be a top priority of the monthlong legislative session that begins Feb. 1. Bills will be introduced to prohibit no-cause evictions, provide tenants with longer notice of future rent increases, and allow inclusionary zoning, which would require any new development to include affordable units.
The Oregon Housing Alliance, a statewide nonprofit collective of local governments, housing authorities, developers and housing advocates, is calling for those measures in its legislative agenda. Its agenda also calls for more funding, including $60 million for a general obligation bond program to build more affordable housing and $10 million for the state’s Emergency Housing Assistance program and State Homeless Assistance Program, which provide short-term rent assistance to prevent or end homelessness.
Janet Byrd, the executive director of Neighborhood Partnerships and chair of the Housing Alliance, spoke to Street Roots about the housing crisis and the upcoming legislative session.
Amanda Waldroupe: One thing that was emphasized repeatedly during the housing forum is the emotional stress and trauma caused by being evicted, facing a rent increase, being displaced, or having to move. It hurts to have to worry about this stuff.
Janet Byrd: Even for the legislators, who are very much our allies, it increased the urgency. It’s awful for people now. We’ve got to stop the craziness in this market.
Fundamentally at the root of no-cause evictions is the fact that I could enter into a business relationship with you and rent a home from you, and you could terminate that business relationship without giving me a reason. It’s a business relationship. People are allowed to come in and go out of that relationship without any concern for the tenant and impacts the eviction causes.
What’s the reality if you get a 30-day eviction notice? Think of all the things that you have to rearrange in your life. You have to think about where your kids are going be enrolled in school. What about your babysitter or your after-school care? You have to figure out new bus routes, transportation to and from work, to and from wherever the kids go. It’s a huge impact.
A.W.: Do you think people realize the impacts of living in stable housing, or not? Is the importance of having a home something that is in our collective unconscious, so to speak?
J.B.: When you say it to people, I think they say, “Yeah, of course that’s true.” But it’s a leap we haven’t yet taken to say that housing is primary. We talk a lot about investments in health, investments in education, but all of that is going to be of limited impact if we don’t pay attention to where people live and whether they have some assurance that they’re going to stay stable. Legislators are starting to get that. There’s growing awareness. The devastation on employment, education and health are important things to keep hammering home. Housing is too important to take it lightly and treat like an insignificant business transaction.
A.W.: What do you think can be accomplished within a month?
J.B.: You know, I am optimistic that we can make progress on all parts on the Housing Alliance’s agenda. It’s going to be hard, but I’m optimistic. There is energy behind all of the concepts. There’s growing awareness of the issue. I think legislators are seeing that we need to do something bold.
A.W.: What makes you so optimistic?
J.B.: I am confident that there will be boldness. Legislators need to keep hearing these stories. I think the question for me is that even if people are really bold in February, this problem isn’t going to be solved in a single legislative session. I think the devastating impacts on individuals are going to keep getting worse. We already see so many people sleeping outside, so many people camping. We’ve got to turn this around. But it’s going to take a while.
A.W.: What do you think are the most important actions to take that would immediately help tenants?
J.B.: Tenant protections are at the top of the Housing Alliance’s agenda. Tenants need longer notice periods before rent increases.
What we would really like is for there to be a moratorium of rent increases of more than 5 percent if a tenant has been living in the unit for more than a year. We want good-cause evictions – there needs to be a sensible reason given. Typically, with a good-cause eviction, if (a landlord) says, “I’m going to evict you because you keep letting the water overflow in your bathroom,” the tenant should be able to say, “Well, I’ve created this way to make sure I don’t do that,” (the landlord) has let (the tenant) correct it. (The tenant) would deserve one warning. That’s what we’re aiming for – the standard that tenants have the expectation that if they’re going to be told to just move, there is going to be a reason, and they then have the opportunity to address that reason and stay.
We are supporting the coalition that is trying to get inclusionary zoning housing policies. And make it clear that inclusionary zoning can be for rental and ownership. We want to be able to have a mix of prices within multifamily developments.
What we’re talking about inclusionary zoning in rental properties is what happened successfully in the Pearl. As (buildings) were being designed, 30 to 35 percent of the units were intended to be affordable. Some of the affordability was achieved by trading off incentives and giving things to the developers in the design process. There was a lot of money that was put into infrastructure and streets, for instance.
At the design stage of new multifamily units, there would be able to be some standards or expectations to (make the units) affordable. The square footage might be slightly smaller, or the units wouldn’t have as nice a view or be as close to elevators. You’re engineering affordability.
A.W.: There seems to be a frenetic level of no-cause evictions right now. What is causing that? Have these sorts of evictions not been an issue before?
J.B.: It’s been an issue forever. For a long time, it’s been on our radar. It’s been getting increasingly problematic as vacancy rates have gone down. It’s gotten so bad with landlords seeing an opportunity in the market, make small cosmetic improvements and raise rent; the rate of eviction has gone up. Displacement in this market means that you’re homeless, in some communities. It’s shifting the energy around the lobbying. This isn’t a Portland problem. It’s statewide, and it’s huge. The other thing about no-cause evictions is that it sets up a dynamic where people are afraid to complain about needed repairs because they’re afraid of retaliatory evictions. They put up with stuff – interruptions in water, mold, bad heat, whatever.
A.W.: It seems like it wouldn’t be such an issue if the vacancy rate were higher and it was easier to find a home to move to.
J.B.: The rate of home construction fell behind during the recession. What we’re starting to see as development picks up again is development for people with higher incomes.
We had a shortage of units. It’s not improving because the current development is (geared toward those higher) incomes. Because of that pressure, there’s also this pressure on rents and the ability to really escalate rents. It’s eviction, not just units.
A.W.: Over the long term, what do you think will solve the shortage of affordable housing? Is it simply building more units and keeping up with demand?
J.B.: It’s policy plus new units: Policy to make sure that we can put units where we need them to try to keep neighborhoods whole and balanced and inclusive. It’s going to take a lot of money. We need to talk not about $100 million, but we do need to talk about the investment from the state in the order of a billion dollars. But it’s also a reprioritization. We spend a lot of money on other things. We’ve put a ton of energy into access to health care and a lot of money to education and access to education. We need to recognize that housing is fundamental to the success of both of those.