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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Rita Loberger, who lives at Eldorado Villas manufactured home park in King City, doubts any bills can pass next session if the landlord/tenant coalition remains in an impasse. Landlord and tenant advocates are bracing for a brawl in Salem.

As Portland’s affordable housing crisis deepens and spreads, there are growing calls for laws to allow rent control, prevent tenants from being evicted for no stated cause, and protect residents in mobile home and manufactured home parks.

But just as landlord-tenant disputes reached fever pitch in Oregon, two longstanding statewide coalitions formed to vet landlord-tenant bills and strike compromises have fallen apart.

That’s going to make it harder to forge majority support for landlord-tenant bills in the 2017 legislative session.

“It looks like we’re headed back to the landlord-tenant wars, and I think that’s not a healthy thing for both sides,” says Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby.

The two coalitions — one for apartments and one for mobile home/manufactured home parks — recently fell apart after landlords flatly refused to talk about rent control, no-cause evictions, and enforcement of state laws for manufactured home parks. Stymied by the inability to discuss their biggest concerns, tenant representatives walked out of both groups.

Both blowups came after landlords insisted they get to appoint a co-chair for each coalition — Portland lobbyist John DiLorenzo — who could veto any agenda item. Both coalitions have long been moderated by John VanLandingham, a Eugene Legal Aid attorney who is sympathetic to tenants but strives to get consensus from both sides.

In a related development, DiLorenzo in recent months has been helping landlords boost their political clout by raising unprecedented sums for their Equitable Housing Political Action Committee. The PAC recently doled out more than $250,000 to legislative candidates, plus three Portland city commissioners.

DiLorenzo is saying “ ‘I’m the new king here. You’ve got to go through me,’ ” VanLandingham says. “My experience with Mr. DiLorenzo is that he has no intention of working collaboratively to address resident and landlord concerns.”

“I think it is an issue of control,” DiLorenzo says. “The landlords are asking him to share that authority.”

Formula for compromise

In 1995, when then-Senator Kennemer was chairing the Business and Labor Committee, he told manufactured home park owners and tenants to stop bringing competing bills to the Legislature, because it was hard for lawmakers to pick sides. Kennemer told the bickering parties to work together on a common agenda before bringing bills to Salem.

They formed the Manufactured Housing Landlord/Tenant Coalition.

Nearly every session since then, the coalition submitted a bill to the Legislature; many of them passed into law. “I think that’s an extraordinary achievement,” Kennemer says.

That coalition was modeled after the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition, which, starting in the early-1980s, brought together apartment owners and tenants. That group also brought consensus bills to the legislature most sessions.

As facilitator of the two coalitions, VanLandingham says he helped set meeting agendas, led meetings, drafted bills and then explained them to lawmakers. He often wrote bills in tandem with Phil Querin, a lawyer for the landlords. Both factions had to sign off before bills advanced to Salem.

Landlords grow more assertive

In June, apartment landlords demanded to appoint a co-chair for the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition, and named DiLorenzo in August. A prominent business attorney and lobbyist, DiLorenzo also owns about 190 apartment units in downtown Portland.

Landlords grew worried, DiLorenzo says, after House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, recently vowed to pursue a bill in the next session to legalize rent control in cities that want to adopt it, which is now barred by state law.

On Oct. 10, two manufactured housing landlord groups said they too wanted to pick a co-chair to serve alongside VanLandingham in the other coalition. They also named DiLorenzo.

“After 20 years, maybe it’s time we have a co-chair who is sensitive to the needs of landlords,” says Chuck Carpenter, executive director of Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon.

Coalitions break up

For apartment tenants in the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition, the top priority for the 2017 session was a bill banning no-cause tenant evictions.

After DiLorenzo was named co-chair, “He would not agree to meet unless we promised in advance not to talk about good-cause evictions,” VanLandingham says. “It’s the only issue we wanted to negotiate.”

DiLorenzo doesn’t dispute that, but says he was willing to negotiate other matters. “I said as the co-chair, I’m going to exercise my prerogative not to talk about that, and he proceeded to blow up the coalition.

“The landlords are not interested in compromising on the only item John wants to talk about — no-cause evictions,” DiLorenzo says.

DiLorenzo cites two reasons landlords won’t give up no-cause evictions. Sometimes investors buy apartments at a higher price than current rents justify, he says, and need to clear units to make major upgrades and fetch higher rents. Landlords also need to protect their tenants, such as when a neighbor plays drums too loudly at night. If landlords are forced to defend such evictions in court, DiLorenzo says, it unduly delays the process, and landlords have to prove their case, often without the help of tenants afraid to testify against their neighbors.

DiLorenzo says if the Legislature allows cities like Portland to enact rent control, as practiced in other big cities, that often freezes rents on some units while putting more pressure to raise rents in remaining units not subject to limits.

“If rents were too high, we would have large vacancy numbers,” DiLorenzo reasons. “We don’t.”

The problem is lack of supply, he says, so tenants should work with landlords to achieve that.

Conditions differ for

manufactured home parks

Tenants in mobile home/manufactured home parks have more rights, because they own their properties. But many chafe at steady rent increases for the land underneath their units.

Nevertheless, VanLandingham says he made it clear he wouldn’t support a rent-control bill for the parks, though he wanted to keep talking about other ways to assure affordability for tenants, who can be priced out of their own homes if rents spike. But the bigger issue, he says, is the lack of enforcement of state laws that the coalition helped enact.

Oregon has no state agency to enforce its manufactured/mobile home laws, requiring tenants to file suits. That’s costly for low-income tenants, and most are relucant to sue their landlords and risk eviction.

The coalition had been discussing Washington’s system, where residents file claims directly with the Attorney General’s office.

Manufactured park landlords recently told VanLandingham they’d no longer discuss enforcement or rent affordability issues in the coalition.

“Those two issues we don’t want to talk about,” says Carpenter, the trade group leader.

“We see enforcement as something like with the Attorney General’s office,” he says. “Everything else we’re happy to talk about.”

He says the coalition has always proceeded only when both sides agree, and doesn’t see the big deal.

But VanLandingham sensed a change in the industry’s stance. “The coalition has never said we won’t talk about something,” he says.

“DiLorenzo comes in; suddenly they’re not. His goal is to make sure there’s no pro-tenant legislation.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Rita Loberger, a volunteer advocate for Oregon mobile home and manufactured home owners, works from her home office in a King City manufactured home park.

Landlord scares manufactured home owners

This summer, Cal-Am Properties sent scores of eviction threats to residents in its Oregon manufactured home parks, threatening to kick out longtime residents if they didn’t quickly rectify maintenance issues uncovered in inspections.

The threats panicked residents, many of them senior citizens on fixed incomes.

“They went to extremes,” says Rita Loberger, who lives at Cal-Am’s Eldorado Villa in King City and is a volunteer leader of the Manufactured Housing/Oregon State Tenants Association.

Despite hot summer weather, Cal-Am told residents at its Heritage Village park in Beaverton to remove window air conditioners.

Some of Loberger’s King City neighbors were told they must install blinds or curtains inside their homes. “That steps inside our homes; they can’t tell us that,” she says.

Others were told they had to repaint their homes, even though the paint wasn’t chipping, Loberger says.

“The houses have to be painted one of 50 shades of beige, and we will decide which one you can do,” Loberger says residents were told. “They cannot require that unless those homes are in disrepair.”

“My contention is that Cal-Am is not sticking to the Oregon law for the management they need to be doing,” Loberger says.

Paul Cosgrove, Cal-Am’s Oregon lobbyist, reviewed the Heritage Village inspection results and concluded the company had not overstepped its legal bounds.

“I’m convinced that they have been very careful to follow the rules, both park rules and state law,” Cosgrove says.

Park managers must keep standards up to meet the demands of other residents, lest their property values and qualify of life are threatened, he says.

When Loberger was invited to speak to nervous residents at Cal-Am’s Lakeside Village park in Salem, she was told about 140 homeowners there received some kind of notice.

Lakeside residents were so upset that about 300 people showed up at the meeting, she says.

The park management “threatened to shut the meeting down and lock the doors,” she says.

Cal-Am has since eased off, under pressure from U.S. Rep Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, and others.

But as Portland’s housing affordability crisis deepens, manufactured home residents are increasingly nervous.

That’s one reason Loberger wanted the Manufactured Housing Landlord/Tenant Coalition to discuss ways to enforce Oregon’s laws protecting tenants. But park owners, fearful of a proposal to have the Attorney General enforce the laws, put the kibosh on that, causing the coalition to disband.

Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby, sees a ready compromise on the current lack of enforcement of state mobile home/manufactured home laws. “I think there ought to be pressure put on for the state to enforce its own rules,” Kennemer says. “There should be agencies that enforce these rules, and not the Attorney General.”

But with the coalition out of action, any compromise might have to wait.

“It means that we probably won’t have any bills this year,” Loberger says, “if we don’t work on it together.”

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