In a 3-1 vote, the Portland City Council adopted a sweeping package of regulations Wednesday addressing how landlords screen their prospective tenants.

Passage of the ordinance marks a major accomplishment for Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who has made renters’ rights her signature issue and spent close to two years working on the policy.

What’s called the “Fair Access In Renting” ordinance creates a first-come-first-served system for rental applications, prioritizes accessible units for people with disabilities, caps the income-to-rent ratio landlords can require of their tenants, and places some limits on the use of credit and criminal histories as criteria for denying a person’s rental application.

Casting her vote, Eudaly said for too long those criteria have been used as a proxy for race, permitting a legal form of discrimination.

“It is no secret that Portland has a long history of overtly racist housing laws,” Eudaly said casting her vote. “What we fail to acknowledge more readily is that many of our current laws continue to uphold discriminatory practices.

“While the language may be less explicit now, the effect is just as clear: We continue to see communities of color, and especially Black residents, pushed to the margins of our city and beyond at an alarming rate.”

The Titan Manor apartment complex in Portland, Oregon.

The Titan Manor apartment complex in Portland, Oregon.

Phoebe Flanigan/OPB

Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Ted Wheeler joined Eudaly in voting “yes” — and thanked her for her leadership and for seeking compromise.

The ordinance is set to take effect on March 1, 2020. The delay is intended to give the Housing Bureau more time to complete rule-making for the policy and to educate landlords on how to comply.

The mayor, casting his yes vote, noted that many uncertainties remain as to how the policy will be rolled out and enforced — and there is no plan yet for how to fund its implementation by the Portland Housing Bureau.

“I will not support the funding of these proposals coming at the expense of public safety or affordable housing production,” he said.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was absent for the vote.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz voted against it.

Fritz said she remains concerned that the ordinance will have unintended consequences — and could hurt the renters it is intended to help by driving up costs, discouraging new housing development, and prompting units that are currently rented to convert to owner-occupied housing.

“Many people can no longer afford rent in Portland; this policy not only does not solve for this problem, it may exacerbate it,” she said. “I’ve heard this directly from landlords as well as from realtors.”

Fritz said she also strongly objects to a screening process, which the ordinance encourages but does not require landlords to use. The ordinance’s “low-barrier screening process” offers landlords a standard set of criteria, which allows rental candidates who have gone at least three years without a misdemeanor and seven years without a felony to be considered.

“Perhaps the most troubling in this policy is the lack of exceptions for people convicted of violent crimes, even rape and murder, in the low barrier screening process,” she said. “Will any landlords choose to use the low-barrier process with that in mind?”

Landlords have vehemently opposed the ordinance and expressed dismay at its passage.

“If the average Portland voter knew what their City Council just did they would be outraged,” said Deb Imse, Director of Multifamily Northwest, the lobbying and trade group representing landlords.

The Council also voted 3-1 to adopt new regulations to the security deposits that landlords charge, with Fritz again casting the lone no vote.

Key Points In The “Fair Access In Renting” Ordinance

First Come, First Served: Landlords must use a first-come-first-served application system for open units. They are required to give 72 hours’ notice before they begin accepting applications for a unit. People with disabilities get priority for accessible units

Identification for Applicants: Applicants do not have to provide proof of citizenship or government-issued photo ID, if they have other forms of photo ID that can be reasonably used to verify their identity.

Income-To-Rent Ratios: Landlords can require applicants to have income that is 2.5 times the rent for less expensive units with monthly rents affordable (as determined by HUD) to those making at or below 80% of the Portland area’s median family income.

For more expensive units, with monthly rents above that affordability standard, landlords can require applicants to have income at most 2 times the rent.

Criminal Background Checks: Landlords are encouraged to use a standard set of screening criteria. According to those criteria, applicants sentenced for a felony conviction more than seven years prior or sentenced for a misdemeanor more than three years prior would not be denied. Participation in a diversion program, expunged convictions and juvenile justice system proceedings would also not be reasons for denial.

Court-mandated prohibitions that prevent an applicant from living at a particular property would still apply.

Landlords could apply more stringent screening criteria, but if they do, they must give applicants an individual assessment and the opportunity to file an appeal.

Credit History Checks: Landlords would not reject an application with a credit score of 500 or higher.

Screening For Other Adults Living In A Unit: Only the applicant can be screened for their financial history. Other adults who will be living in the unit can be screened for their factors related to health, safety and property maintenance (i.e. a person’s criminal background).

Exemptions:

  • Owner-occupied duplexes, or landlords renting out an ADU on a property where they occupy the primary home, would be exempt from the screening policy.
  • Landlords working directly with nonprofit service providers to house low-income or vulnerable tenants.
  • Units not advertised for rental to the general public, or in which the landlord lives in part of the unit. 

If state, local or federal funding or loan requirements for tenant screening conflict with the policy, the loan requirements would take precedence.