Home room: Gresham tenants talk rent reform
The state of housing in Gresham has led one 88-year-old Gresham woman to the brink of homelessness.
Norma, who lives at Gresham Station Apartments, shared her story during a meeting with like-minded community members who are tired of stressing each month about the threat of unexpected rent increases or no-cause evictions.
"It's getting to where I can't do much because of all the rent I am forced to pay," Norma said.
In the past year her rent went up $37, a much more drastic increase than the Social Security check she receives each month, which only increased by $7.
"I don't know what I can do," Norma said. "No one will help us. We need help."
Norma's story was not the only one shared during "Housing for the People," an event held Tuesday night, Feb. 6, at the Gresham Station Apartments on Northwest Shattuck Way. The event was hosted by the Community Alliance of Tenants and Pueblo Unido PDX, which has been a vocal opponent of the city's Rockwood Rising development. The focuses of the peaceful gathering included the dramatic rise in housing costs, wages lagging behind rent increases and an insufficient supply of homes.
"Rents are rising, and Gresham is being hit hard," said Pam Phan, the Community Alliance of Tenants policy and organizing director. "This community is ground zero for the rental housing issue."
The Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) is a statewide and grassroots tenant-rights organization. Pueblo Unido is a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting, educating and advocating for Latino immigrants in East Multnomah County. Formed in April 2017, the advocacy group is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are Rockwood Residents themselves.
The organization's first two clients helped open its collective eyes to the housing issues.
"They were forced to make a decision between paying for an attorney or paying their rent," said Francisco Rodriguez, co-executive director of Pueblo Unido.
One woman at the Tuesday gathering spoke of neighbors forced to live in a park next to the apartment she lives in because of massive rent increases, while another man had to live on the streets for two weeks while he searched for a new place to live. In the room filled with about 50 people, seven were about to be priced out of their homes by rent, four had been evicted without cause and five were too afraid to complain about maintenance problems in their apartments.
"We are all sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Marih Alyn-Claire, with CAT. "We need to find more lines of support."
Housing has been a constant issue raised at Gresham City Council meetings through the testimonies of local residents. Advocates, many of whom were at the meeting Tuesday night, have shared stories of rent increases and no-cause evictions that have driven people to the brink of homelessness. Those affected tend to be the most vulnerable — elderly, disabled, young adults who can't find stable work, and some families of color.
"We have engaged city council at meetings formally, but they are not getting things done for renters," Pham said.
While the tenants met to discuss ideas and strategies for taking on the housing issue, just down the road several landlords went before the Gresham City Council to advocate for their side.
Many said that rent control wasn't the answer for Gresham because the main concern is a lack of housing supply. With so many people moving into East Multnomah County, there aren't enough homes available. They stated a desire to see Gresham City Council find ways to incentivize development.
One landlord who spoke was Lila Leathers, a Boring resident who owns property in East Multnomah County. She said that often rent increases are out of the control of the property owner, instead dictated by outside forces. An example is the recent Gresham-Barlow School Bond that voters supported.
"As a landlord, I am grateful for the new school bond, but property tax increases due to bonds passing are part of the cost of renting," Leathers said.
Additional restrictions would place the burden on landlords, the speakers said. Rent control means they may have to be more selective in the rental process, further tightening the supply available.
"Heavy burdens and controls of any type is the wrong direction for economic growth," Leathers said.
Gresham resident Joan Albertson spoke of past successes the Gresham City Council and Mayor Shane Bemis have achieved from supporting families to business.
"The common thread in Gresham is getting government out of the way, and adding creative incentives to get those involved in a positive manner," Albertson said. "If we have a housing crisis in Gresham, I am sure council will come up with a plan."
Strategies for change
Community members worked in smaller groups to brainstorm advocacy strategies that could be used to support housing in Gresham.
"This is a good opportunity, lots of folks in Gresham are affected by housing issues," said Cameron Coval, co-executive director of Pueblo Unido. "We are concerned this housing crisis will only get worse."
They came up with pushing for better representation at the city level, showing that renters are not second-class citizens, coming up with a unified message, incorporating youths and finding those who feel disenfranchised or without a voice.
The state of Oregon does not allow individual cities to implement rent control, though there are some steps the organizers highlighted that Gresham could take to help address the housing issues.
The city could declare housing a state of emergency and regulate no-cause evictions. One idea would be to require notice to tenants before they lose their home without cause. In Milwaukee, city officials increased the required notice period from 30-60 days to 90 days.
Another plan would be to require reimbursement of relocation costs for tenants who are subjected to a no-cause eviction or a significant increase in rent. Portland requires landlords to pay $2,900 to $4,500 to tenants in this situation.
Finally, they want the city to limit required security deposits and define "reasonable wear and tear" to protect against abuse of those deposits.
The community members want more to visit City Council meetings while also organizing an email and letter writing campaign.
"We need our residents to attend these meetings and to join the Gresham advisory committees," Rodriguez said.
For those interested in joining the tenants at the Gresham housing meetings, the next gathering will be held at 1 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, at Gresham Station Apartments, 1003 N.W. Shattuck Way. The event will be used as a chance to prepare before the City Council meeting the following day, where many of the members will attend and voice their housing concerns.
The city of Gresham is making a renewed effort to update its Housing Policy, which was last set in 2013. Brian Monberg, Gresham's policy manager, has been tasked with examining the housing issues across the city while coming up with potential solutions.
Monberg has been presenting his findings to city council throughout the process.
"We want ways to develop new housing, while also improving existing units," he told The Outlook for a previous story.
The four pillars of the former policy were housing opportunities, economic development, livability and rehabilitation. Monberg is updating information based on the demographics of Gresham, new housing and the relationship between development and rent increases. He is also diving into alternative practices the city could use to combat rising costs of housing. One alternative could include incentives for rehabilitating old, sub-standard housing.
"Even with rent prices going up, Gresham remains one of the most affordable cities in the region," Monberg said. "The rates have grown slower here compared to Portland."