For months, Portland landlords have complained that they have been listened to but ultimately ignored as Commissioner Chloe Eudaly crafted a complex policy to regulate many core aspects of their business.
The resulting ordinance, introduced this week, establishes new rules for how landlords screen tenants, advertise their units, collect security deposits and calculate damages and other charges to tenants.
At a first hearing Wednesday, set up as a chance for Eudaly to make the case for the ordinance, two exchanges between commissioners and experts invited to weigh in on the bill gave credence to those concerns that criticism of the policy is unwelcome.
After the second tense exchange, Mayor Ted Wheeler took the unusual step of exhorting his colleagues to treat their critics with respect.
The hearing comprised of five panels of invited experts.
Surprisingly, Eudaly’s first invited expert, Tyrone Poole, declined to take a position on the ordinance. He used much of his time to urge the council to consider the possible impact on small businesses.
Poole is the creator of One App, a website tenants can use to see in advance whether they’ll pass a landlord’s screening criteria. An African American entrepreneur who was once homeless himself, he’s been directly involved in the development of the ordinance.
Poole said that he’s grown uncomfortable with the narratives about property owners and managers some tenant advocates frequently use to argue for changes — a narrative Poole said he once subscribed to himself.
Poole said landlords have been portrayed “as fat cats. They’re wealthy, sitting with their feet up, they don’t do anything but collect rent, they just have a lot of wealth and time.”
“I’ve found that’s actually not the case for the majority of management companies,” he told the City Council.
Poole said he is concerned, in particular, about the unintended consequences these new regulations could have in a market dominated by small businesses with relatively small profit margins.
“I need to make sure that you understand the risk that you run by passing the criteria,” he said. “You are talking about letting renters into properties that management companies are not equipped to support.”
Eudaly pushed back, noting that the ordinance is intended to help rent-burdened tenants. She said it only requires landlords to do what’s required by fair housing laws.
Later, when Commissioner Amanda Fritz attempted to ask Poole a follow-up question, Eudaly interrupted:
“That is completely irrelevant to this policy,” she said.
City leaders heard testimony Wednesday from numerous experts who support the proposal and described it as a groundbreaking effort to reduce discrimination, intentional and unintentional, in the rental market.
“We must do the best we can to address the damages of racisms, other-isms, and socioeconomic inequality today as people are barred from housing access today, in a crisis,” said Katrina Holland, the executive director of the Community Alliance of Tenants.
But the meeting turned tense again when Jessica Greenlee, a property manager who serves on the city’s rental services commission, criticized the ordinance.
“On its face, the exhibit that you have is 33 pages long. It’s quite complex,” she said. “When rolling out good public policy, you want it to be something people can comply with and understand on its face.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty followed up with a series of questions about people missing IDs, an element of the policy Greenlee had criticized.
“Today we have community members who don’t have access to government IDs. Are your housing units accessible to them today, and if so what is the process to allow them access to those housing units?” Hardesty asked.
“They may have to provide a birth certificate, or something with proof of birth, some other ID that we can use for screening purposes,” Greenlee answered. “I would say that the way that this is worded is what the challenge is; it’s vague.”
Hardesty offered her a hypothetical:
“My dad was born a long time ago. The hospital he is born in burned down. He does not have his birth certificate,” she said. “He would not be eligible to get an Oregon ID. If he just happened to be out there trying to get housing, I would like to know how you would help him get housing.”
Greenlee put it back on the commissioner: “Don’t you think that responsibility lies in the public sector then to be able to provide access to those forms of being able to get that ID or to utilize public resources to support those individuals?”
As Greenlee talked, Hardesty tried to interject. Greenlee tried to finish her answer, appearing in the process to frustrate Hardesty more.
“My question is really a basic one,” Hardesty said, “and you are choosing not to answer my question. And that’s OK, if you don’t have the answer. I would appreciate it better if you just tell me you don’t have the answer, and then I’ll ask somebody that actually has the answer.”
Greenlee left council chambers crying. An aide to the mayor followed her out and apologized.
“When people come here and testify they deserve to be treated with respect,” Wheeler told his colleagues. “ … I don’t care if people are for this or they are against it.”
In an interview after the hearing, Greenlee apologized for her public display of emotion, and she said it stemmed in part from her anxiety and her discomfort with public speaking.
But she said she feels a change at City Hall.
“There’s just a sense of anxiety that comes with testifying in front of City Council anymore, if you disagree with the point of view that they are putting forth,” she said.
Greenlee said after her experience, she does not want to go back.
Hardesty said later that her line of questioning was appropriate for the context and noted that she frequently asks panelists hard questions.
“I’ve always been direct. I’ve never been disrespectful,” she said.
Hardesty maintains that Greenlee wasn’t answering her questions.
“I was shocked that the mayor came to her defense,” the commissioner said.
Hardesty said she was also displeased that Greenlee talked over her at one point. Both Hardesty and Greenlee interrupted each other during the exchange.
“I found it very disconcerting,” Hardesty said. “I acknowledge that there is a power difference in this particular situation, but she has much more power than me normally, just being a white woman in America.”
Others in the room saw it differently.
Tyrone Poole said he never felt disrespected himself during the hearing, but he was uncomfortable with how Greenlee was treated.
“I did feel as if others were disrespected during that process,” he said. “I think the mayor did a very good job of resetting when things started to get out of line.”
Poole said he would have felt less comfortable giving a critical review of the ordinance after watching that exchange.
“I would have been more worried about how she feels about my response, more than being truthful,” he said.
Hannah Holloway, policy advisor for the Urban League of Portland, was sitting next to Greenlee during her exchange with Hardesty and questioned the mayor’s response.
“My perception of the situation is that Jessica was nervous, and so she had heightened emotional response to tough questioning from Hardesty,” Holloway said. “The mayor saw those tears and responded to those tears, but didn’t necessarily respond to the substance, tone or righteousness of Hardesty’s exchange with her.
“Throughout the hearing, all the commissioners, but in particular Commissioners Hardesty and Eudaly, got a lot of back and forth from some of the panelists. I was impressed by the patience with which they responded to a lot of people who typically talked over them when they didn’t talk over other commissioners or the mayor.”
The questions of tenant protections and the role landlords play in Portland’s housing crunch are politically fraught. The council is divided over the new regulations on screening criteria, with Wheeler emerging as the likely deciding vote.
Hardesty and Eudaly have said opponents of the new rules are using inflammatory and even discriminatory language to stoke fears about what the requirements would do. Meanwhile, robocalls have gone out encouraging Portlanders to tell Wheeler that Portlanders don’t want criminals living near them.
Council members will hear public testimony on the proposal Thursday, though they won’t vote for several weeks.