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The Apartment Market is Swinging in Favor of Landlords. So what Can Portland Do to Protect Tenants' Rights?

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Portland's apartment market is tightening up. While vacancy rates hovered between 6 to 8 percent for the past few years—making it a tenants' market, where landlords frequently offered incentives to pick up renters, and kept rents low—now the tables have turned.

Home prices and interest rates have risen, leaving many Portlanders unable to afford a home—instead, they're cutting a check to the landlord each month. And the ranks of renters are growing, as more people move to the area, attracted by Portland's hip factor and job growth. Meanwhile, the stock of housing isn't keeping up with demand (thanks in part to condo conversions, which reduce the stock every time an apartment is turned into a condo).

As of September 2006, Portland's vacancy rates dipped down to about 3.4 percent—from the 2005 vacancy rate of 5.9%—according to a November report from Mark D. Barry & Associates, an apartment appraising firm in Portland.

In other words, there's more demand for available apartments—landlords are reporting dozens of inquiries to ads for vacant apartments—and that means higher rents. The Barry report forecasts a 5 to 7 percent rent hike next year, and a vacancy rate as low as 2.75 percent by late 2007.

GET CRUSHED BY A DOOR: GET EVICTED

With landlords back in control of the apartment market, tenants' rights—such as those that protect them from disrepair issues, sudden rent hikes, or losing their apartment altogether—are all the more important. Yet with the market no longer in their favor, tenants lose valuable bargaining power.

In a tiny, cramped corner of a Northeast Portland church basement, Ian Slingerland and two other community organizers know exactly how important tenants' rights are—and they know just how few local renters have. The three employees—the only paid staff for the statewide Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT)—spend most of their time fielding calls and emails from tenants who have concerns about their living situations.

Dawn Michael called them recently about her apartment on NE 162nd, just off Burnside, where she's lived for the past two and a half years.

"In July the door fell completely out of the frame and crushed my leg," she says, adding that it nearly hit her baby as well. Her apartment had other problems, too: a broken lock and a burner on the stove that didn't work. But despite her complaints and injuries from the door—she still has numbness in her leg—her landlord "still didn't repair it."

"So I went to a lawyer, he wrote a courtesy letter, and the landlord still didn't repair it," Michael says. "So then I went to the city inspectors."

City inspectors documented the apartments' problems and sent the landlord a notice to repair them. Michael says she got a 30-day no-cause eviction notice in retaliation. That's when she called CAT for help.

"I'm going to fight it," she says, if she can figure out how. Fighting a no-cause eviction without an attorney isn't something CAT recommends. But Michael isn't sure she can afford an attorney. "Right now I'm struggling with trying to get medicine for my leg. I have to pay for that out of pocket."

LANDLORD LOOPHOLES

Michael's story is, unfortunately, the kind Slingerland and his colleagues hear every day. Compared to other urban jurisdictions, Portland's renters aren't well protected.

Repair problems are a common issue for renters. While a call to the landlord is usually sufficient to initiate a repair, some landlords or managers aren't as responsive. Legally, landlords must keep an apartment in good working order. But practically, if a landlord doesn't fix the broken door or take care of the mold in the bathroom, a tenant has to complain to the city's building inspectors to get any action—and the landlord will know who complained. Though increasing a tenants' rent or giving them a no-cause eviction after they've demanded repairs is illegal, it happens—and the fear that it might happen can make tenants scared to complain in the first place.

Condo conversions are another problem. Developers are supposed to give tenants 120-days notice if their building will be converted to condos, and conversion work can't be done in an occupied unit without the tenant's permission. That's not always the reality, though: Tenants around the city have reported problems with messy, loud construction while they're still living in the building. Others have received a 30-day no-cause eviction notice not long after the 120-day conversion notice, giving them even less time to find a new place to live. (The double notice may not be legit, but the law "isn't clear," Slingerland says.)

Other jurisdictions—like Boston and San Francisco—limit the number of condo conversions each year, so housing stock isn't lost as quickly. While Portland requires relocation assistance for lower-income tenants, places like Boston and New York require at least a year's notice of a conversion.

Tenants aren't well protected from rent increases in Portland, either. Though major increases haven't been much of an issue here for the past few years—given the vacancy rates, landlords had little power to demand higher rents from current tenants—if Portland experiences a boom of new residents, rents might skyrocket with short notice. Currently, landlords have to give month-to-month tenants 30-days notice of a rent increase, no matter how large the increase.

In other jurisdictions, landlords can't raise the rent exponentially without giving additional notice—Seattle and California tenants, for example, get 60-days notice if the rent's going up more than 10 percent.

For low-income renters, all these problems are compounded; faced with a deteriorating apartment or an eviction notice, a low-income person's choices are limited as rents around the city creep up. And resources to move—to pay for a new deposit, to rent a moving van, to take time off from work if needed—are scarce.

COMPLAINTS = EVICTION

But the main problem, folks like Slingerland and Michael say, is Oregon's no-cause eviction law.

Under that law, a landlord can give a tenant 30 days to leave the apartment, if they're paying rent month to month (a lease offers tenants more protection). The landlord doesn't have to give a reason.

Technically, the landlord can't use a no-cause eviction to eject someone for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. But the tenant would have to take the landlord to court to argue the case—and if they don't have documented evidence of the discrimination or retaliation, they might not have much of a case.

"A tenant can use a retaliation defense," Slingerland says. "But it's difficult for a tenant to prevail." Plus, the process takes time and resources, which many tenants would rather put toward scrambling to find new housing.

The net result? Some landlords are able to get away with using no-cause evictions for retaliatory purposes—which makes other renters fearful to speak up for their rights in the first place.

Slingerland recently received this email on behalf of another tenant having problems—the tenant didn't even want to write to CAT, fearing retaliation:

"I am contacting you for advice. I have been asked by several friends living in [an unnamed building] to seek an answer to a question pertaining to the Oregon Residential Landlord and Tenant Act," the person wrote. "They have asked me to get involved because I am not a tenant of the building and they are concerned about retaliatory action if they were to take their complaint to the management."

Slingerland says: "This is an example of how the impact of retaliatory evictions is much broader than just the impact on tenants that actually receive evictions. Retaliatory evictions create a climate of fear."

If Oregon were to ditch no-cause evictions, tenants could breathe easier about exercising the rights they do have, he argues.

"It's one of the two top priorities for our organization and it has been for as long as we've been around," Slingerland says. "The ability of renters to assert their rights is dependent on their ability to stay in their homes. And no-cause provides an easy route for landlords to discriminate and retaliate with relative ease."

LITTLE HELP FROM THE STATE

It's unlikely that state legislators are going to rewrite the landlord-tenant act to remove no-cause evictions. For starters, landlords aren't willing to give up their rights to evict problem tenants without a stated cause.

Norton Cabell, a consultant and landlord in Eugene, sits on the state's ad-hoc, unofficial landlord-tenant coalition as a representative for the statewide Oregon Rental Housing Association. The coalition—CAT is also a member—hashes out changes to the state's landlord-tenant law, then hands it to the legislature to pass the changes.

"Our goal is to make laws that protect good tenants from bad landlords and good landlords from bad tenants," Cabell says. "That's never easy, but that's what we keep trying to do."

They're currently negotiating changes in the law with regards to victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. No-cause evictions, however, are not on the table—and probably won't ever be.

"It's not on the table because it's probably not politically accomplishable," Cabell says. "For the last decade we've had split-party control, so it was really off the table. I don't think with even the Democrats in control that it's politically accomplishable."

That's because, he says, landlords have a good argument for keeping no-cause evictions as a tool, despite their reputation as a way to unfairly oust tenants.

"That's a legitimate realistic fear," says Cabell, who acknowledges he knows landlords who practice such evictions. "If I complain to my landlord, he's just going to give me a 30-day notice and make me leave. Of course it happens, and of course it's a fear for tenants."

The landlords' case for keeping them? While there are benefits for landlords in using for-cause evictions—"they are a protection against fair housing claims," Cabell points out—a for-cause eviction also means the landlord has to be able to prove the reason for eviction, which can be difficult, even if it's a legitimate reason.

"The arguments are that nobody evicts for no cause—there is always a cause," he says. "Some causes are very difficult to prove. Drug-dealing activity—how do you prove it? You get into a 'he said, she said' situation, and it's difficult to prove."

In places without no-cause evictions, he points out—like San Francisco and New York—you can end up with tenants who abuse their housing and make it "difficult, cumbersome, expensive, and time consuming" to evict them. Ditching no-cause evictions "creates problems as well as solving problems. There are trade-offs."

Therefore, "the coalition hasn't really spent time focusing on [it]. I think it would take a lot of negotiation on both sides."

Indeed, despite the respectful, collaborative working atmosphere of the landlord-tenant coalition, the issue of no-cause evictions is one where there's a lot of disagreement. Slingerland, for his part, argues that for-cause evictions provide enough options for landlords to get rid of problem tenants.

"[Landlords say] it's a tool that folks need to get rid of problem tenants," he says, "tenants that are disruptive or threatening other tenants. But the more we've talked about it, it seems like the tools that exist now are adequate—if [landlords and managers] are trained and prepared."

CAT could work outside the coalition on this issue, Slingerland says. But they don't currently have the resources to mount a campaign, especially considering the uphill battle they'd face to pass it in Salem.

"I'm sure there are folks locally that would take it on," says Slingerland, "but I don't know if it's worth the effort at this point."

While a state legislator could step up and introduce a bill aimed at protecting renters, they probably wouldn't get far without going through the ad-hoc coalition.

"We've got a process for negotiating changes," Cabell says. "I think issues ought to be worked out there. So it's harder for somebody out of the blue to drop a bill that's going to ban no-cause notices, for example."

WILL PORTLAND STEP IN?

But it's possible Portland could step up to protect its renters, if the state won't. While state law governs the landlord-tenant relationship, "we don't believe the city's ability to do just-cause evictions is preempted by state law," Slingerland says.

"In the short term at least there's a better chance of the city taking action on these issues than the state legislation. The issue is big enough that we feel the city should step up and do something about it."

The city is creating a workgroup—of landlords and renters' advocates—to explore ways to improve the quality of rental housing, including the landlord-tenant relationship. The workgroup was one of the recommendations in a report last year that analyzed "impediments to fair housing." No-cause evictions are one of a number of issues the workgroup might take a look at.

"Many community members are feeling that they'd seen no-cause evictions used in a retaliatory way," says Tracy Lehto, with the city's Bureau of Housing and Community Development. But, "there's no place that no-cause evictions are tracked. We just don't have good hard data, but we're hearing the stories and it's an issue we'd like to learn more about."

Currently, the city is working to bring both sides of the issue into the discussion. "We need to strategize a process that will bring landlords and renters to the table," Lehto says. "We could sit around with either side and come up with lots of ideas that wouldn't fly. But we want to find solutions that would be supported by both parties to address these issues.

"There's not an easy solution to this, so that's one of many reasons people don't want to take it on. We want to explore it but we haven't put the workgroup together yet."

Housing workgroups in the past have come up with recommendations that were never implemented, and Slingerland doesn't want that to happen again—so he's happy to wait until the city can get all the stakeholders to the table.

"We understand the need to have a broader array of stakeholders," he says. "There also needs to be clarity from the get-go that there needs to be action at the end."

If landlords balk and the city isn't willing to tighten up evictions in favor of tenants, though, Slingerland says there are other things that could be done to protect renters, like requiring landlords to get a license to rent a unit (they'd have to prove it's in good repair before they could rent it out), or doing scheduled, non-complaint-driven inspections of apartments on a regular basis, so tenants don't open themselves up to retaliation by needing to complain. Beyond discussing no-cause evictions, a landlord-tenant workgroup could also look at these issues, and find solutions that work for apartment owners and renters, Lehto says. "We need to discuss why renters can't exercise their rights under Oregon landlord-tenant law, then look at solutions," she says.

Until then, however, exasperated folks like Dawn Michael are stuck at the whim of their landlord.

"There has to be a reason for why they get rid of you—not just because they feel like it."

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