Our Opinion: Council fumbles landlord regulations
There's something exciting about watching a group of elected officials rush to address a pressing problem.
And both the thrill of victory and the agony of inexperience were on full display in last week's Portland City Council vote to make it harder for landlords to evict tenants without documenting they had violated their rental agreement.
Moving with speed that would make the NFL's Tom Brady proud, the Portland Council Crusaders deployed a hurry-up schedule that allowed them to pass a major piece of housing policy with very little deliberation. The pace was so fast, in fact, that councilors were voting on an ordinance that was partially unwritten, adopting so-called "conceptual amendments" to be figured out later.
When the final whistle blew, Portland was left with a half-baked law, effective immediately, that imposed significant restrictions on owners of rental properties who want to evict their tenants without cause.
And, just as fast, it was challenged in court.
Why the urgency? It appears to be a mix of both politics and pragmatism.
Both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly campaigned on a promise to ease the housing crisis in Portland. Passing this ordinance gave them both the chance to take an early victory lap.
There was also a worry that, had they scheduled a series of public hearings or empowered a task force to study the issue, some landlords would push tenants out ahead of the law. It was a legitimate concern, given the flood of building permits developers filed to get ahead of a long-debated requirement, finally imposed last December, that they set aside a portion of new apartment and condominium units for low-income residents.
However, the expedited schedule for the eviction policy put landlords, understandably, on the defensive, and Eudaly, in what we hope was a rookie mistake, turned unnecessarily combative.
To be fair, she was in a tough spot. As a candidate, she promised to push for a rent freeze and had to abandon that when the realities of governing (and state law) set in. So she was taking some heat from her supporters as well as rental property owners.
Still, her demonization of landlords was both unnecessary and unproductive.
Out of this tense atmosphere came a flawed policy that is still a work in progress. The council put an October expiration date on it, but should not wait until then to look at how it can be improved.
The first step, which should have been done weeks ago, is to look at how other cities have addressed this issue. In Seattle, for example, landlords can't boot out a tenant unless they meet at least one of 18 criteria. Is that working? Why not find out?
Second, Wheeler and Eudaly need to temper their celebration with a forceful acknowledgement that this ordinance is imposing a temporary hardship on private citizens (landlords) to fix a problem that already is being partially addressed. The free market is bringing hundreds of new rental units to Portland — a trend being seen in many major cities.
Portland is already seeing pressure on rents ease as a huge influx of rental units comes on line. What Portland needs is a temporary solution until the supply of rental housing catches up with the demand being felt in all West Coast cities.
If the eviction restrictions are to be a bridge to a market solution, the council must now belatedly engage landlords to find out how this proposal will actually work in the real world.
There will be unintended consequences and the city needs to have a system in place where changes to the ordinance can be made just as quickly as the ordinance itself was. The "mom and pop" landlords who were disrespectfully dismissed by Eudaly are not the problem, but they could be part of the solution.
A hurry-up offense may work on the football field, but it has proved to be a lousy way to craft long-term public policy.