By Jessica Floum
Exceptions to Portland land use rules, protections for city renters facing eviction or big rent hikes, and political pressure to devote taxpayer and donor money to affordable housing will continue for the foreseeable future, following a unanimous Portland City Council vote Wednesday.
All those measures are intended to curb Portland's critical shortage of affordable housing and spike in homelessness.
The council voted Wednesday to extend for a second time its a declared "housing emergency." It also voted to extend a renter protection policy adopted in February by six months to give city officials time to implement a permanent renter's rights policy.
Instituted in 2015, the emergency declaration has encouraged spending on housing, allowed for flexibility in where city and county officials can open shelters and fast-tracked building permits for affordable housing projects. The council extended the declaration by 18 months and charged the Portland Housing Bureau and the city and county's Joint Office on Homeless Services to develop criteria for when the city should lift the temporary rules.
Commissioners hope to implement permanent rules in the city's zoning codes by then. They might include permanent zoning exemptions that allow for homeless camps such as Right 2 Dream Too or emergency homeless shelters in the winter.
"There's more we need to do to stabilize the systems that impact housing and homelessness in our community," Mayor Ted Wheeler said. "This is an emergency that requires action now."
Led by former housing advocate and city Commissioner Chloe Eudaly early this year, the council adopted a tenant protection rule that requires landlords to pay $2,900 to $4,500 in relocation costs to renters whom they evict without cause or who must move as the result of a rent increase of 10 percent or more.
The council extended that policy, set to expire Friday, by six months. Wheeler, the housing commissioner, pledged to bring a permanent renter protection rule back to the council on December 6.
Dozens of renters urged the council Wednesday to take the rule further.
They shared experiences of landlords finding ways around the rule such as increasing rents by 9.97 percent instead of 10 percent and requiring renters to pay for utilities that the landlord previously covered.
They advocated for closing an exemption for "mom and pop" landlords who only rent one unit. The impact on the renters is harmful, regardless of who the landlord is, they said.
Many of the most vulnerable tenants rent from smaller landlords because they can't access "mainstream" rental opportunities due to criminal histories or other "troubled records," said Katrina Holland, executive director of renter advocacy group Community Alliance of Tenants.
Eudaly proposed an amendment removing the exemption for small landlords. But the other four commissioners voted against it, noting the complexity of the exemption. They all said they thought the stakeholder group advising the housing bureau on this policy should iron out details of whom the council should and should not exempt.
"I'm not prepared to vote for amendments on the fly," Wheeler said. "I'd like to respect the process we currently have in place."
The commissioners also agreed the group should consider a hardship exemption for certain landlords. Eudaly and Commissioner Amanda Fritz both expressed concerns over landlords raising utility charges and suggested city officials look into that.
"If (renters') utilities are being raised beyond the actual increase, that's a landlord raising the rent, so we'll be addressing that," Eudaly said.
About 40 renters, landlords, housing officials and real estate advocates testified at Wednesday's council meeting. They shared concerns ranging from abuses of the existing renter protection policy to shrinkage of the rental supply due to burdensome rules on landlords.
Some renter advocates heckled Wheeler after he explained his reasons for not undoing the small landlord exemption.
Extending the emergency declaration and renter protection rules were the first of a series of housing policies the council will consider this month. The council next week will vote on spending guidelines for a $258 million voter-approved housing bond. The following week, commissioners will consider a pledge to create 2000 apartments where people can live and receive supportive services such as health care and drug addiction treatment.
"There is a lot more work to do," Wheeler said. "This isn't the end. We've only scratched the surface."