In a small church basement in Northeast Portland, Dung Ho spends her afternoons returning phone calls.
It’s part of her job as the tenant education program director for the Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants — or CAT. She helps run a renter’s rights hotline.
They get all kinds of calls.
“Evictions, terminations, lack of essential services,” Ho said. “Like, ‘I have no heat right now.’ ‘My water’s not working.’ ‘My place is completely infested by mice and rats.’ Those are very common calls coming in.”
Ho pulled out an inch-thick manila folder stuffed with forms detailing the messages left recently. All things told, she said there are about 140 callers waiting to hear back.
“While we’re returning those calls,” Ho said, “there will be 40 more calls rolling in.”
A couple of years ago, Ho might have been able to get through her whole stack of calls in a day. Today, the sheer volume is staggering. Her organization has had to resort to a triage system that prioritizes Oregon CAT members and areas of the state that fund the group’s efforts.
Still, the problems the group faces are often much bigger than something a phone call from the renter’s rights hotline can fix.
That’s part of why Oregon CAT is lobbying for policy changes — legislative measures that would prohibit no-cause evictions, require landlords to pay relocation costs for some just-cause evictions, and, perhaps most controversial of all, repeal the state’s ban on rent control.
Rent control is complicated and it takes different forms. But the basic idea is that it protects tenants by imposing limits on what landlords can charge.
So why would Oregon ban rent control in the first place?
It all goes back to World War II, when the federal government implemented rent control as a response to a nationwide housing shortage. Supplies like paint, steel and glass were being directed to the war effort. A lack of residential construction threatened to send rents skyrocketing — until the Office of Price Administration stepped in and put flat ceilings on rents.
But economist Joe Cortright said those caps had unintended consequences. Ultimately, they made rents more expensive by blocking incentives for new construction and investment, and by taking housing stock off the market, which together meant less supply to meet demand.
“Economists are not unanimous about very many things,” Cortright told OPB. “But one of the things that I think the profession is pretty unanimous about is that rent control tends to be a very self-defeating proposition if our objective is to try and make housing affordable.”
By the 1980s, most cities around the country had phased out of World War II-era rent controls. But activists in some states had recently won new limits on rents — limits that didn’t just set a rent ceiling, as they had in World War II, but that adjusted to inflation, left out new construction, and allowed apartments to jump back up to market rates when a tenant moved out.
They called this rent stabilization. And that’s the language you’ll hear legislators using today.
In 1982, a group of mobile home tenants in Lane County also mobilized around rent stabilization. They even got a measure on the county ballot. It didn’t pass, but it was close enough to spook landlords, lobbyists and politicians into passing a statewide moratorium on rent controls.
Three years later, state lawmakers revisited that temporary ban. Former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales was president of the Oregon Homebuilders Association at the time. He testified in favor of extending the moratorium in perpetuity.
“I had the chance to look down the gun barrel at rent control measures,” Hales told the Oregon Legislature in 1985, “and I think we sometimes forget after a couple of years how close we came in November of 1982 to having rent control underway in Oregon, which is what the need was for this legislation in the first place, and why it’s now being brought to you in making permanent. House Bill 2505 is just that, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to preserve Oregon from that kind of a threat and it’s an opportunity to benefit from other states’ bad experiences with rent control.”
House Bill 2505 passed and was made into law. Ever since it’s been at the heart of legal debates over municipal policies like the city of Portland’s recently passed ordinance requiring landlords pay relocation fees for tenants evicted without cause, and those forced to move by rent increases of 10 percent or more.
Oregon wasn’t alone in banning rent control when it did; 34 other states made similar moves. Today, only four states and the District of Columbia practice rent control.
But renters, tenants’ rights advocates like CAT, and some Oregon lawmakers say it’s time to take a second look at this decades-old policy decision. After all, most research on the efficacy of rent control is outdated and doesn’t transfer well to understanding how it could play out in Oregon now.
Karin Power is the representative for House District 41, which covers Milwaukie and parts of Southeast Portland. At a press conference in early February, Power discussed a bill to revoke the statewide ban on rent control, among other provisions.
“I think we’ve heard anecdotes about it working and not working in some circumstances around the country,” Power, a Democrat, told reporters. “But what we’re hoping to do through this bill is return this tool to local jurisdictions so they can explore this for themselves.”
Cortright isn’t sold.
“There are worse forms of rent control and then there are less worse forms of rent control,” he told OPB. “But the notion that there’s somehow a magical form of rent control that doesn’t create these problems is, in my view, mistaken.”
Back at the Community Alliance of Tenants, Dung Ho just wants to see some relief for the callers on the other end of the hotline.
“Right now we’re hearing stories about tenants who are receiving these crazy rent increases, these no-cause notices,” she said. “The more stable tenants can contribute to their communities more. They can contribute in the workforce more. They can be more involved with their families.”
“It really is a systemic issue,” Ho added, “so policy change is definitely necessary.”