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Milwaukie tenants speak out on rental legislation

State Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, says people being priced out of Milwaukie after TriMet's 2015 construction of the Orange Line

Milwaukie's citizen liaison to the county Housing Advisory Board, Patti Jay, a veteran and single mother, recently received a no-cause eviction in the middle of the school year.

Andrea Adams, former chairwoman of Milwaukie's Arts Committee and longtime community volunteer, received a significant rent increase of $390 or $515, with the number dependent on how long of a lease she signed. She's since had to leave Milwaukie.

State Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said she heard these and many other similar stories of people being priced out of Milwaukie after TriMet's 2015 construction of the Orange Line led to a spike in real-estate prices.

"Evictions and displacement impact all of us," Power said. "It exacerbates fiscal and economic challenges in our communities by affecting employee productivity, lost wages and impacting employer-leave policies. And it increases demands on social services, shelters and hospitals."

PARIS ACHEN/CAPITAL BUREAU - Coya Crespin and her son, 5-month-old Titan, sit inside the Oregon Capitol in Salem March 2, 2017, during a hearing on a tenant protections bill. Crespin is a tenant at Titan Manor in North Portland, a 72-unit apartment complex where eviction notices were issued to residents in January 2017.Power helped organize testimony last week from more than 100 tenants in Salem. Testimony from a nearly equal number of landlords was part of a five-hour hearing at the state Capitol Thursday, March 2, on a controversial bill to outlaw no-cause evictions and lift the statewide ban on rent-increase limits.

North Portland resident Coya Crespin melted into tears as she recounted to legislators the ordeal of experiencing a mass eviction.

"These notices have been recently rescinded," said Crespin, a mother of two small children. "This is a small victory in the broader issue in the lack of proper rental protection for Oregon families. We need our state leaders to help us. We need you to level the playing field."

A new city of Portland ordinance helped to reverse the course of Crespin's eviction and those of other residents of the 72-unit apartment complex in the St. Johns neighborhood. The regulation requires landlords to pay tenants relocation expenses in a no-cause eviction.

Crespin and 100 other tenants called on lawmakers to expand similar tenant protections statewide. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, spoke in favor of the bill Thursday morning, describing it as one of many remedies the state will need to address the affordable housing crisis. While she admitted lack of supply is the underlying cause of the crisis, she said the Legislature needs to take immediate action to protect tenants.

"The current rental market is failing too many Oregonians when it comes to stability and predictability," Kotek said. "And it will not get better unless we act."

The bill would give local jurisdictions the authority to enact ordinances to limit how much rents may increase. It would outlaw no cause evictions and require landlords to pay tenants relocation assistance equivalent to three months' rent in the case of no-fault evictions, such as a landlord moving into or selling the residence.

Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions, wrote that no-cause evictions are the most common reason given by families coming into homeless shelters, according to testimony read by Ruth Adkins, policy director of Oregon Opportunity Network.

Elaine Friesen-Strang, president of AARP Oregon, said seniors are particularly at risk of being priced out of the rental market.

Seniors who rent live in fear of being evicted without a valid reason, Friesen-Strang said.

Don Moeller, a 75-year-old stroke survivor, said he lives in an independent-living retirement center where the landlord regularly raises rent by up to $150 a year. Many times, residents have to move out because they can't afford the higher rents.

"My fellow tenants and I generally have no personal means of transport to meet our dietary, pharmaceutical, medical and dental needs," Moeller said. "(We) have opted to live out our lives at a residential facility which we could afford and which would provide us with bus transport to meet our everyday needs — however, without any mention by our landlord that Oregon lacked any laws which prevented them from charging successive, annual rent renewal increases exceeding a tenant's previously disclosed limited ability to pay."

Meanwhile, landlords pushed back on the proposed legislation, calling it onerous and unfair.

"The need for additional housing in our communities should not be the burden … of landlords," said Theresa Wisner, who owns a single-family rental property in Albany. "If that becomes the case, we … will seriously consider selling our property, with the likely outcome that less, not more, rentals are available on the market."

Wisner and her husband recently invested their life savings to purchase the rental house. The income from the rent will supplement whatever Social Security benefits the couple receives after retirement, Wisner said. Her husband is scheduled to retire next year.

"If we had known legislation like this would be coming up, we would not have chosen to enter this market," Wisner said. "It disturbs us to realize that if we have a bad tenant, we may not be able to evict them without significant and financial burden that we cannot meet on a fixed income."

Coos Bay landlord Diane Boyer said the bill penalizes good landlords for the actions of a few bad ones. She and her husband, Don, own six rental properties in the Coos Bay area. Requiring relocation assistance could make property ownership unaffordable for them, Don Boyer said.

"I know that there are bad landlords but you have to be sure to protect us, the small guys," Diane Boyer said.

Economists overwhelmingly agree that rent restrictions are more likely to harm than to help the supply of affordable housing. But housing experts also say the measures give more stability to existing tenants and prevent forced displacements, as those seen in Portland.

News Editor Raymond Rendleman contributed to this story.