Oregon Enacts Weak Statewide Rent Controls

On Feb. 28, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a law enacting the nation’s first statewide rent controls— but its regulations are much weaker than local rent laws elsewhere in the country.

The measure limits annual rent increases to 7 percent plus inflation—currently, about 10 percent—in buildings that are more than 15 years old. It also prohibits evicting tenants without good cause if they have lived in their building for at least a year.

“This bill is a critical tool for stabilizing the rental market throughout the state of Oregon,” Brown said at the signing ceremony. “It will provide immediate relief to renters struggling to keep up with the rising rents in a tight rental market.”

Portland Tenants United, however, said that while capping rent increases and banning no-cause evictions were a victory, the law was “riddled with loopholes.”

“Oregon’s law has been hailed as unprecedented because it’s the only state to enact statewide rent control,” the group said in mid-March. “But also unprecedented is how high the rent cap is. Most rent control policies across the country cap increases at 1 to 3 percent, and no rent control policy in the world enshrines rent increases as high as Oregon just did.”

PTU estimated that if the 7 percent plus inflation rent cap had been enacted in 2010, when the state’s median rent was $1,185 a month, legal rents permitted would have almost doubled by 2018, to $2,319. The actual market increase was to $1,658. The law also does not limit increases on vacant units.

The ban on no-cause evictions, it adds, does not protect tenants until after they’ve occupied the unit for a year. It also allows evictions for three lease violations within a year— including, PTU says, ones as minor as hanging a towel on an apartment balcony.

The law also does not repeal the state’s 1985 law prohibiting local governments from enacting their own rent controls. A bill to repeal that ban passed the House in 2017, but got no action in the state Senate.

“We needed to have a bill that could get support in the Senate,” House Speaker Tina Kotek told the Portland Oregonian in January.

In the 2018 elections, however, Democrats gained one seat in the Senate, and Portland Democrat Rod Monroe, a landlord opposed to rent regulation, lost the primary to Shemia Fagan, who advocated repealing the ban on local controls.

The bill passed on party-line votes: 17-11 in the Senate, with no Republicans voting yeas and one Democrat voting no, and 35-25 in the House, with three rural Democrats voting no.

“Ending the local ban on rent control remains urgent.” PTU says. “A recent study found that 156,000 households in Oregon are at imminent risk of homelessness because they pay 50 percent or more of their income towards rent. These rent-burdened households can’t afford a 10 percent rent increase.”

Landlord organizations did not oppose it. But PTU charged that Fagan “was frozen out of the process” while the legislative leadership drafted a bill “that included all the right buzzwords, but had a negligible impact on reining in rapacious landlords.”

The state’s housing crisis is not limited to Portland, Oregon’s largest city. Rents are rising rapidly in the smaller cities of Salem, Eugene, and Bend, and in rural areas. “If you ask anyone in Southern Oregon, no one would tell you any differently: The housing crisis is real in Southern Oregon and has been growing in the last five years,” Michelle Glass, director of a community organization in Medford, told the Portland weekly Willamette Week in January.

Rep. Paul Evans, a Democrat from the western suburbs of Salem, has introduced a bill that would exempt cities with more than 200,000 people from the state ban on rent controls, require smaller municipalities to “establish local standards to promote housing stability no later than July 1, 2021,” and exempt those that did from the ban.

His bill has been sitting in committee since January without any action. PTU says Evans told its organizers that House leadership wouldn’t schedule a hearing unless he agreed to delete the provisions ending