PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — As the Legislature considers lifting Oregon’s 32-year-old ban on rent control, tenants’ rights advocates and developers gathered this week to debate affordable housing in Portland, the nation’s hottest housing market.
In response to the overheated housing market and resultant housing crisis, the state House in April approved a bill that would lift Oregon’s 32-year ban on rent control. The legislation has been hotly debated in the state capital, Salem.
In Portland, rapidly rising rents, no-cause evictions, and an influx of outside development money have spurred heated debate on local and state solutions. Oregon has consistently led the nation in home appreciation in recent years, and Portland has led the state. In midyear 2016, the city’s more than 12 percent annual appreciation was more than twice the national average, and its vacancy rate was virtually invisible, at 1.4 percent, according to The Oregonian newspaper.
The Portland City Council in 2015 approved an ordinance prohibiting landlords from raising rent by more than 5 percent without 90 days notice, which brought a lawsuit from an apartment owner.
This year the City Council unanimously approved a temporary policy that requires landlords to pay tenants they evict without cause.
On Wednesday, the state’s Human Services Committee heard testimony from advocates of the pending House bill in Salem. Also Wednesday, speakers made the case for and against rent control in a Portland debate.
The debate at the Alberta Rose Theater was hosted by advocacy group Portland Forward and radio station XRAY FM.
Former House member and current radio personality Jefferson Smith, who hosted the debate, said that if the rent control legislation passes, Oregon will have “one of the most important conversations we’ve ever had.”
Most of the theater’s 300 seats were filled. Advocates for rent control attendance cheered for statements in favor of affordable housing, and laughed and hissed at developers’ arguments.
Real estate developer Ted Gilbert spoke first, urging the audience to put rent control in the context of Oregon history. “We’ve been here before,” he said.
Gilbert, known for his efforts to build a cycling park between two highways in East Portland, said previous recessions would have made Oregon’s current situation worse had they resulted in rent control.
“We’ve dug our way out, and here we are again,” Gilbert said. “There’s an ebb and flow to the market, and there’s a lot that you can’t control. But when our public representatives try to artificially manage that ebb and flow, it’s really dangerous.
“Rather than polarizing, we need private capital, and we need to leverage it with our scarce public resources,” Gilbert said. “Rent control will drive local capital to the sidelines.”
“Bullshit!” one audience member shouted in response.
“Can I have some money?” another jeered.
Allan Lazo with the Fair Housing Council of Oregon spoke next, and cited the human cost of the housing crisis.
It’s not worth discussing affordable housing and rent control without considering the history of discrimination, segregation and displacement in Oregon, Lazo argued.
When Oregon became a state in 1859, its constitution explicitly forbade African-Americans from living in the state. Since then, there has been a long history of racist policies and displacement of Oregon’s black residents, Lazo said.
Urban renewal in the 20th century “decimated” thriving black communities in Portland, Lazo said. “A community once told they could only live in [northeast Portland’s] Albina neighborhood has once again been displaced, this time by gentrification,” he added.
The centerpiece of the event was a debate between Margot Black, an organizer with Portland Tenants United, and Gerard Mildner, a professor of real estate finance at Portland State University.
Black, whose speech was peppered with cheers from the crowd, advocated rent stabilization to keep tenants in their homes.
“It is a policy that allows tenants who could afford market rent when they moved into their homes to stay in their homes in the event that Adam Smith’s invisible hand moves the market rents up significantly faster than their income,” Black said.
Mildner advocated expansion of Portland’s urban growth boundary, saying that he shared the concerns about rising rents, and that the city should open up more property to develop.
“Is there any proposal you have that doesn’t inure to the immediate benefit of developers?” moderator Smith asked, to applause and cheers.
“Our spirit is to help create an environment where people can find affordable housing, naturally,” Mildner said.
Black and Mildner took questions from the audience. City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was one of them.
Eudaly, a former bookstore owner, was elected last year on a campaign of tenants’ rights and affordable housing. She called today’s housing crisis “unprecedented.”
“Regardless of whether you’ve lived through a boom-and-bust cycle before, you’ve never lived through anything like this. It shows no signs of stopping,” she said.
Eudaly asked Mildner how many acres of urban growth boundary the city should give up to make rent affordable.
“How much of our agricultural-forest land do we have to give up so they’re affordable to people below 85 percent of the [median family income]?” Eudaly asked.
“Commissioner, I’m not Santa Claus,” Mildner responded, to laughs in the crowd. “Markets will respond if you give them the tools and get out of the way.”
In his closing remarks, Mildner said, “One of the virtues of the free market is you have some bargaining power,” which provoked laughter.
Black concluded her remarks: “It comes down to what kind of city we want to live in. Right now it is perfectly legal to give a 100 percent rent increase on a building full of immigrants and refugees, whose children represent 5 percent of their local neighborhood school. And it is illegal for us to do anything about it.”
Event organizers polled the audience about their opinions on rent control before and after the debate, known as an Oxford-style debate.
Before the debate, 53 percent of the audience said they favored rent control, 22 percent against, and 24 percent were undecided.
After the debate, an extra 12 percent of the audience favored rent control, while 1.6 percent more decided they opposed it.