Landlords in Oregon have almost unlimited power to kick out tenants. Now, as they grapple with a statewide housing crisis, state lawmakers are considering a measure that would require property owners to give a reason for issuing an eviction.
That would allow a tenant to fight the notice in court. And if landlords don't give a reason, the tenants would have three months to leave — and landlords would have to help pay for the move.
According to the Oregon Law Center, Oregon would join New Hampshire and New Jersey as the only states that ban most types of no-cause evictions if the bill passes.
Mark Bidwell and his wife bought a 27-unit complex in Keizer last fall. He recently tallied the damage to a two-bedroom apartment in the 27-unit complex he and his wife own in Keizer. The walls needed a paint job after being covered with graffiti. Some windows needed repairs.
Bidwell said he’s seen worse.
"This will be about $1,800 in repairs,” he said.
The people who lived here were the recipients of the first no-cause eviction Bidwell issued after he bought the complex last fall. Shortly after he bought the property, some of the people who lived there pulled him aside and told him about one of other units.
"They felt that there was probably drug dealing going on,” Bidwell said. “There were people coming and going through the night. It would start late and run 'til early in the morning."
Bidwell said other tenants told him the people in the unit spit on other residents' windows, used racial slurs and were generally threatening.
That would have given Bidwell plenty of reason to issue a for-cause eviction. But he said he hadn't seen any of the bad behavior himself, and he was afraid that using that kind of eviction would mean his other tenants would have to testify in court. So he used another tool: the no-cause eviction.
It meant Bidwell didn't have to give a reason to force the four troublemakers out of the $795 per month apartment.
"It's actually fairly rare to have a bunch of neighbors appearing in eviction court,” said Ed Johnson. He is the director of litigation at the Oregon Law Center, which helps tenants facing eviction.
Johnson said that's a possibility, but most for-cause evictions don't end up in court. The Oregon Law Center is supporting the proposal to end no-cause evictions. It's part of a broader attempt led by Democratic lawmakers to address the affordable housing crunch that exists not only in Portland but in many smaller communities around the state.
They say in a time of rapidly rising housing costs, some property owners use no-cause evictions as a way of clearing out tenants so they can spruce up the units and charge the new tenants a lot more money.
Johnson said the only defense against a no-cause termination is to claim discrimination or that the landlord is retaliating against a tenant who asks for repairs.
"Those are difficult defenses to prove because the landlord hasn't told you in the notice why you're being evicted,” Johnson said. “And so you're left to basically guess. And then the landlord can come up with any reason."
That's the situation that Laura Cuccia-Nilsen and her partner are facing. The two rent a small apartment in the coastal town of Netarts. They noticed problems soon after moving in last year.
"We're from Minnesota. We're used to cold temperatures but not in the house,” Cuccia-Nilsen said. “So we ended up wearing our winter coats, and extra layers, keeping blankets over the door to keep warm during November and December."
The draftiness wasn't the only issue. Cuccia-Nilsen said there were leaks, shoddy wiring, ongoing pest problems and more. They put their concerns in writing and soon after that, there was a no-cause eviction notice posted on their door.
"It's up to us now to prove that it's in retaliation to all these problems and this dialogue that we've had,” Cuccia-Nilsen said. “And that's where it gets really sticky. We're not confident that we can prove any of it."
The clock is ticking for Cuccia-Nilsen and her partner. They have until mid-April to find a new place to live.
The proposal to ban no-cause evictions is one of several housing proposals in Salem this session. The bill would also allow cities and counties to limit the amount that rents can increase each year. Other proposals would increase funding to build more affordable housing for low-income families.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, said solving the state's housing crunch will involve more than simply building more homes.
"While we have a shortage of supply, and it's the underlying cause of the problem, we cannot and should not simply believe that we can build our way out of this crisis," Kotek testified to the House Committee on Human Services and Housing.
Kotek says some of the proposals to address the housing shortage probably won't make it all the way through the legislative process.
Lobbyists for landlords have pushed back against the bill to end no-cause evictions. Terry Turner, the head of the Oregon Rental Housing Association, which represents rental property owners, said the measure goes too far.
"It will make our lack of housing worse," Turner said. "It will not address the real issues facing tenants."
Some Oregon cities have already taken steps to curb the number of no-cause evictions. Portland, Bend and Milwaukie have all passed ordinances that make it more difficult for landlords to evict tenants on short notice.