Alison Kalenak never expected to sue a landlord. In Bend, that happened not once, but twice.
Earlier this summer, Kalenak put a rental deposit down on a home, but decided not to move in after a family emergency happened. When the landlord said wouldn’t give back the first month’s rent, she told the landlord that she would rather move in anyway. But the landlord said she couldn’t move in, and wouldn’t give Kalenak her money back.
So Kalenak sued the owner, and got her first month’s rent back.
After that, she moved into a home managed by a property management company. About a month after moving in, she received a notice that her lease would be terminated after neighbors complained about her pets and noise — things Kalenak said were totally unjustified. The property management company kicked her out, and kept her deposit, she said. Now, Kalenak’s suing the company for her deposit and moving expenses.
“I just think that the market is such that they feel like they can do this to people,” said Kalenak. “And it’s a way for them to get people’s money.”
Kalenak is not unlike many in Bend who struggle with landlord-tenant problems. Here in Central Oregon, tenants have few places to turn for legal help and no local organization to advocate on their behalf.
Since 2011, there were nearly 500 landlord-tenant cases filed in Deschutes County Circuit Court, according to court data. During that same time, about 4,100 eviction cases were filed.
Meanwhile, rental prices in Bend have shot up. The city’s vacancy rate hovers around 1 percent. Housing experts agree that it’s a landlord’s market, and when it comes to legal protection, renters are often on the losing end of the bargain.
“Certainly, as in a lot of places throughout the state, there likely are not adequate tenant advocacy and education resources in Central Oregon,” said Allan Lazo, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon.
In Portland, the Community Alliance of Tenants operates a hotline for tenants with legal questions. The organization also advocates on their behalf with landlords and before the Oregon Legislature. The tenants’ group pushed for a law, which went into effect in 2014, banning landlords from turning tenants down simply for using federal Section 8 vouchers, which are made available to many people with low incomes.
But in Central Oregon, there is no local organization to represent renters. Katrina Holland, interim executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants, said it occasionally helps renters from Central Oregon when it has the capacity.
Just recently, the organization dealt with a woman who moved to Bend and was asked to pay six months’ rent before she could move into a home, Holland said. The tenant was able to negotiate that down to three months, but her landlord’s actions were still prohibited by state law, Holland said.
“I think the hardest part about this story, is that because she couldn’t find anywhere else to go, she paid it.”
Because rental options are scarce in Bend, fewer tenants are willing to stand up to landlords when their rights are violated, Holland said.
“While tenants may want to fight back, what we have found is they’re less likely to fight back.”
Whether or not Oregon renters need more legal protections has been a topic of discussion at both state and local levels. In Bend, officials are talking about extending the period for “no-cause” eviction notices to 90 days. Currently, landlords can make month-to-month tenants move out in 30 days without a reason.
“It’s a very volatile market right now, and people are scared,” said Cody Standiford, community liaison for Central Oregon Veterans Outreach. “People are really terrified because they know at any given time, they can get a notice that says, ‘you need to vacate,’ and there’s no reason.”
Standiford says he’s speaking from personal experience. Right now, he says he’s planning to sue a former Bend landlord who didn’t return his deposit.
“It’s not like I can call the police and say, ‘Hey, they’re breaking the law,’” said Standiford. “I have to do that on my own.”
But for most people, taking legal action can be expensive, time-consuming and confusing, Standiford said.
“People don’t understand their rights,” said Standiford. “They don’t know who to turn to, and there’s really no oversight in the rental property arena.”
In Central Oregon, people can get affordable or free legal help from Legal Aid Services of Oregon and the Oregon State Bar’s Modest Means Program. Meanwhile, the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association operates a hotline for landlords. But the organizations often ends up answering questions from tenants, said Arleigh Santoro, president of the rental owners group.
“Our whole purpose works for both tenants and landlords,” said Santoro.
This year, the Oregon Legislature passed a package of bills aimed at chipping away at the causes and effects of a statewide affordable housing crisis. One of the bills aims to protect tenants in month-to-month agreements with landlords by preventing landlords from raising rent in the first year of a tenancy. It also requires landlords to give 90 days’ notice before raising rent on month-to-month renters who have stayed in a home for over a year.
But for tenants in Central Oregon who grapple with how to handle problems with landlords, there are few options.
For instance, about a month ago, Beth Majors found out her landlord was selling her home and she needed to move out.
Majors lives in northeast Bend with her boyfriend and three children. But Majors said her landlord didn’t give her sufficient notice and has since threatened to withhold part of her deposit, which she believes should be returned in full. Majors doesn’t know whether her landlord is acting within the law, but she doesn’t have the money to hire an attorney, she said.
Her landlord, Alan Jones, said he’s given her multiple notices and plans to start the eviction process. Jones said he isn’t required to renew her lease. As for the deposit, he doesn’t know whether he’s going to keep part of it, he said last week.
“I have other plans for the house, and she had a lease, and the lease expired,” said Jones. “And she’s had a difficult time. I explained to her that, ‘Hey, I said I’ve got to get an eviction process started.’”
— Reporter: 541-633-2160, firstname.lastname@example.org