SALEM — Statewide rent control took its first big jump toward becoming law Tuesday, winning approval in the Senate.
Senate Bill 608 passed 17-11 and now goes to the House. It would make Oregon the first state to enact statewide rent control.
The bill would cap rent increases at 7 percent, plus any increase in the consumer price index. Buildings less than 15 years old are exempt. It also bars landlords from evicting tenants for no reason after they have lived in a unit for 12 months or more.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is one of the chief co-sponsors of the bill. Democratic leaders have said they expect it to move quickly through the House on the way to Gov. Kate Brown’s desk by the end of the month. The bill includes an “emergency clause,” meaning it becomes law as soon as the governor signs it.
Democrats argue the bill would give renters immediate safeguards from what they called a crisis of rapid rent spikes and so-called “no-cause” evictions.
“An ordinary life shouldn’t be that hard,” said Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland, a co-sponsor of the bill. “The basics shouldn’t be that hard. But for so many Oregonians, basic stability is out of reach.”
Republicans say the bill would just aggravate the state’s affordable housing shortage by pushing landlords to sell homes instead of renting and stop developers from wanting to do business in the state.
“I think the most likely outcome of this bill is negative consequences for the very people the proponents of this bill want to help,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.
The rent control bill is the first of a batch of housing bills being quick-marched through the Legislature by confident Democratic leaders who hold supermajorities in the House and Senate.
Democrats needed only a majority vote for the rent control bill to pass in the Senate. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was the lone Democrat to vote “no.” Ten Republicans voted “no,” while two GOP senators were absent.
Even without Johnson, Senate Bill 608 passed with a comfortable margin. But it was a reminder that Democratic leaders could be vulnerable with their bare minimum 18-vote supermajority required for upcoming tax legislation.
The next stop for the rent control bill is the House Human Services and Housing Committee, which is already dealing with another controversial affordable housing bill. The panel is expected to vote early next week on House Bill 2001, which bars zoning that allows only single-family homes in cities with a population over 10,000.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, and Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, both sit on the committee. Helt has said she will wait to hear testimony and get constituent feedback before deciding her position. Zika has been critical of the rent control and zoning bills.
In the Senate floor debate, Democrats made a politically symbolic choice for their lead-off speaker.
Fagan, a former House member, ousted Sen. Rod Monroe in the May 2018 Democratic primary. She made rising housing costs a central issue in her campaign against Monroe, a landlord who critics said had helped Republicans stall earlier rent control efforts.
Fagan took the floor and said homelessness was a personal issue for her. She and her older brother were raised by her father in The Dalles. Her mother, who battled addiction to methamphetamine and heroin, was homeless in east Portland. In 1997, after not seeing her mother for years, Fagan, then 15, and her brother were invited to visit her in Portland at a large Victorian-style house with a wrap-around porch. Fagan’s mother greeted her children out front.
“Instead of walking up the steps, she dropped to all fours and she crawled under the porch and then she invited us into her ‘home,’” Fagan said. “So my brother and I dropped to all fours, and we crawled under the porch behind her. We spent an afternoon in our mom’s ‘home.’ She unzipped a sleeping bag so her kids were not sitting on dirt.”
Fagan’s said her mother would go on to beat drug addiction and died in Umatilla, where at her funeral the minister praised her for battling to attain an ordinary life: a house, a job and a dog.
Fagan said what many more financially comfortable Oregonians take for granted is a battle for hundreds of thousands of families. She said the state leads the nation in percentage of homeless children and that many renters won’t complain about abusive relationships, bad neighbors or even ask for repairs.
“They don’t even want to be noticed by their landlords in fear of rent spikes or no-cause evictions,” Fagan said. She called Senate Bill 608 a start — a “benchmark.”
“For many renters, for many families, Senate Bill 608 doesn’t do enough and doesn’t come soon enough,” Fagan said.
Republicans agreed there is a major affordable housing problem in Oregon. But they said more housing, not rent control, was the best answer.
Knopp, who is executive vice president of the Central Oregon Builders Association, as well as executive director of Building Partner for Affordable Housing, said his many years of working on housing issues led him to believe Senate Bill 608 would hurt the state.
“By Oregon becoming the first statewide rent control state in the nation, it will have a chilling effect on investors and developers who want to invest in this space,” Knopp said. “We’re a small state, and this bill creates large risk for those investors. Because as you heard, we’re just getting started.”
Knopp said the central issue was that the Legislature and other government bodies have thwarted attempts to increase the amount of housing. He said when he first moved to Bend in 1986, he and his wife decided to sell his car and took cash meant for a Hawaiian honeymoon to put $3,000 down on a $40,000 house. Around 2001, with his growing family stretching the limits on its home, the couple bought a larger house priced at $136,000.
“Bend was affordable in 1986 and in 2001,” Knopp said. “Why? Because there was supply that matched demand.”
Knopp said that after blocking supply-side fixes for the housing market “year after year after year,” Democratic leaders were now imposing a quick fix designed for Portland on the entire state.
“One size does not fit all when it relates to housing policy,” Knopp said. “Unfortunately, we are going to find out the hard way.”
Knopp said the best solution was to remove restrictions on building new housing.
“We don’t need to do anything extreme,” he said. “But we need to do what is prudent to fix this problem. And it is a real problem. There is heartache.”
The Democrats’ preferred solution to the supply debate is expected to come to the Senate soon.
House Bill 2001, the zoning bill meant to spur the building of duplexes and triplexes, is expected to be approved by the House before moving on to the Senate.
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