Can Rent Control Protect Communities?

Oregon passed a statewide cap on annual rent increases, and now other states are paying close attention.
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A rally held in support of rent control on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia, Washington, on Feb. 27. Photo by Tanya Webking.

For 31 years, Andy Mangels, 52, and his husband, Don Hood, 61, lived in an apartment in the Goose Hollow neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. In December, the owner of their building changed. Hood, who is a disabled veteran who had been working for 12 years as an onsite manager for the apartments, was laid off. Then their rent was raised 113 percent.

Mangels said the news was more than just shocking. They were now facing displacement from a neighborhood they had called home for more than three decades. As the longest-surviving tenants in the neighborhood, Mangels said, everyone knew them and even deemed Hood “the sheriff” because he watched out for everyone.

“You build community when you live some place for that period of time,” Mangels said. “You’re building a lot more than just a place [where] you live.”

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When people heard about Mangels’ situation, he was contacted by organizers of Senate Bill 608 to share his story. The bill would implement the nation’s first statewide rent control law and implement a 7 percent annual rent cap.

Although the bill would not be able to change Mangels and Hood’s situation, Mangels lobbied for the bill in front of the House of Representatives in hopes of helping other people who might face a similar situation, he said.

“I felt it was a moral responsibility [to make sure] that it didn’t happen to other people,” Mangels said.

Members of Stable Homes for Oregon Families celebrate after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signs Senate Bill 608 into law on Feb. 28. Photo from Stable Homes for Oregon Families.

In February, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law. Several states, including Washington and California, are hoping to follow suit.

The fight for rent control in Oregon began about three years ago, said Alison McIntosh, policy and communications director for Neighborhood Partnerships in Oregon, a nonprofit that helps low-income people with financial security and housing stability. Residents from all over Oregon have been displaced by severe rent increases and eviction without cause, she said.

However, it is hard to put a number and specific locations to the displacements and evictions that occur in the state, McIntosh said, because they do not end up in court. Landlords provide notice to tenants of pending evictions or rent hikes, but that notice does not need to be filed and the landlords don’t need to secure permission before sending the notice, she said.

“Housing stability and housing opportunity are really fundamental for everything.”

The only defense tenants may have is if the landlord did not follow the rules for giving notices. But even then, landlords can just reissue the notice, McIntosh said. Tenants’ stories are heard only through the media or when they testify in front of the state legislature, she said.

McIntosh said people were receiving no-cause eviction notices days after complaining about things like mold or leaky roofs. In hopes of putting an end to this, groups like Stable Homes for Oregon Families and the Community Alliance of Tenants came together in 2017 to introduce a bill in the state House of Representatives that would have given tenants some protection from rent increases and evictions to tenants on short-term leases. The bill was passed in the House but fell short in the Senate.

Three years after that defeat, activists came together again and helped get Senate Bill 608 passed. McIntosh and her colleagues were relieved and excited, but there is still a lot more in the works to improve housing affordability and security in the state, she said, adding the passing of the bill was a step in the right direction.

“Housing stability and housing opportunity are really fundamental for everything,” she said.

Some other solutions they would like to work on, McIntosh said, are increasing their investment in emergency rent assistance for tenants who may need it and building more affordable housing.

Activists elsewhere are keeping an eye on Oregon. For Violet Lavatai, co-executive director for the Tenants Union of Washington State, this news gives her hope that a similar policy could be enacted in Washington. But she does not think Oregon’s bill goes far enough. A 7 percent annual increase in rent is still too much, she said, and she hopes Washington will adopt a maximum annual increase of no more than 3 percent.

“We have a vision for rent control where it is fair,” Lavatai said.

Lavatai knows that when renters thrive, so do their communities and families. She said putting a limit on rent increases creates accountability and puts in place mechanisms for negligent landlords.

“Housing should always be a human right.”

A driving force for Lavatai and the Tenants Union’s fight for rent control is the fact that marginalized communities are most susceptible to eviction and displacement due to rent hikes. People of color, senior citizens, people who have disabilities, and more are at risk of homelessness, a problem that Lavatai said is getting worse.

An incident that occurred in 2016 in Tacoma, Washington, at the Tiki Apartments is prompting tenants to try to make changes, Lavatai recalled. Residents who had been living there for years were told they needed to move out with only 20 days’ notice.

Lavatai knows rent control is not the only solution to these problems, but said having it would impact a lot of residents in Seattle, because half of the population are renters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Housing should always be a human right,” she said.

Renters, advocates, and community leaders in Milwaukie, Oregon, voiced their support regarding relocation assistance at City Hall on June 11. Photo from Stable Homes for Oregon Families.

Lavatai says that the city also should build affordable housing because the new luxury buildings that have been popping up in Seattle are not affordable for everyone, she said.

Unlike Tacoma, Seattle has an ordinance that protects tenants from eviction without cause, Lavatai said. Additionally, landlords have to pay for relocation assistance if the tenants are income-qualified, which most are, she said.

David Garcia, policy director for the Terner Center of Housing and Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, said he was surprised at how quickly the Oregon bill moved through the legislature and was signed into law. Debates related to price control are often polarizing and, in California, haven’t resulted in a change in policy. But people are really eager to find reasonable solutions to climbing rents, he said.

In 2018, Californians proposed an initiative (Proposition 10) that would repeal the state’s Costa Hawkins Rental Act, which regulates the kind of rent control cities are allowed to have, Garcia said. The measure was defeated by a significant margin, but Los Angeles County then enacted a temporary 3 percent annual cap on rent increases while its Board of Supervisors evaluated whether to keep or change it, according to Curbed Los Angeles.

However, a number of measures that strengthen rent control are being introduced in the state. He is not sure when the specific language will be out, but he said there will be a bill similar to Oregon’s. According to Curbed Los Angeles, the cap amount on rent increases has not been decided, but it is slated to be higher than current caps in those California cities that already have rent control.

Curbed Los Angeles also reported two additional bills that were announced. One would allow rent control to be established in units built after 1995, which is currently not allowed. Another would put more restrictions on eviction without cause, similar to what’s already in place in Seattle.

Part of the Terner Center’s motivation to engage in this discussion, Garcia said, is the hope to bring some nuance to a polarized debate, where some see any form of price control as destructive and others see it as the best solution to rising housing costs.

McIntosh said states hoping to adopt a policy similar to Oregon’s should have listening sessions with legislators so they can hear concerns from constituents face to face. Another helpful tactic in Oregon was showing the legislators the impact evictions had on not just the individual who needed to leave, but also their community, she said.

As for Mangels and his husband, after a significant amount of looking, they have found another rental home about 8 miles from their previous neighborhood. He said finding a place that was both affordable and the right size was not easy, but he hopes this will be their home for a long time.

Despite this, Mangels is hopeful about their new home and landlord. He said he hopes that the passing of the law, and any others that might come after it, will promote similar change in other states.

“You cannot have life, you cannot have liberty, you cannot pursue happiness if you do not have a home to live in,” Mangels said.