Last weekend, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) sat across a round table from three Portland tenants facing eviction—and admitted she couldn't help them.
The renters live in Titan Manor, a 72-unit apartment complex in St. Johns where the California-based landlord began issuing no-cause evictions late last year.
At a Feb. 4 housing forum in Northeast Portland designed to educate state lawmakers on problems faced by renters, the tenants asked Kotek what she could do to keep them from getting kicked out at the end of this month.
"Nothing," Kotek replied. But along with confronting their landlord, she pledged to pass laws to keep such evictions from happening to others.
That may not be so easy, either.
In Portland, momentum for new tenant protections has never been stronger. Newly elected Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly campaigned on housing reforms. Last week, the City Council passed unprecedented tenant protections for Portland, requiring landlords to pay moving costs for tenants they evict without cause.
But city government doesn't have the authority to determine its own housing regulations. Any significant tenant protections for Portland must first be approved by lawmakers in Salem, where Democrats hold majorities but are less liberal than housing activists would like, and where major policy changes often take numerous attempts to pass.
The legislative session that began Feb. 1 will test the ability of Kotek and state Democrats to address this city's housing crunch.
Kotek has introduced an ambitious slate of reforms—including an end to the statewide ban on rent control, which has been illegal in Oregon since 1985. She is also pushing for a ban on no-cause evictions statewide.
"Rent stabilization is important," Kotek tells WW. "Communities can stay put longer. It's one of the tools that Portland needs to have."
Oregon is one of just six states in which Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and the governorship.
But politics in the Capitol are a paler shade of blue than in Portland. That's made passing housing reforms a struggle.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill allowing local jurisdictions, like Portland, to require developers to build a certain number of affordable housing units in new projects. But that bill was the fourth try in four years to free up cities to implement the policy known as "inclusionary zoning."
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, says Republicans and moderate Democrats view any government cap on how much landlords can increase rent as one step shy of socialism.
"It's a high-powered bill," Moore says. "It stirs emotions on both sides."
There's little question Portland renters could use some help.
Average monthly rents in Portland have jumped nearly 30 percent since 2012. In January, WW reported that rent increases and no-cause evictions at two large apartment complexes—one in Cully, the other in St. Johns—would displace dozens of families and as many as 85 public schoolchildren.
Even as Wheeler and Eudaly passed a city rule Feb. 2 requiring landlords to pay moving costs after no-cause evictions, they admitted such modest reform was the limit of what they could legally do.
Eudaly expressed hope Salem would give her the power to go further. "That will require the state Legislature to overturn the ban on rent control," she said, "and give the city back its regulatory tools."
Tenant advocates feel confident they have the necessary votes in the House.
The Senate, where Democrats hold a 17-13 majority, is harder. Democrats lost a Senate seat in November. It moves more slowly and is more conservative than the House.
Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland), for example, says he opposes rent control. "It doesn't work," Monroe says, adding that other Senate Democrats also plan to vote against the bill. He hasn't decided on the "no-cause" evictions ban.
Advocates for renter protections say they'll pressure Monroe to support their bills.
"Rod's district is at the heart of the crisis," says Felisa Hagins, political director of Service Employees International Union 49. "I hope he's not dug in. We're certainly going to make a strong case to him."
Opponents of Kotek's rent-control proposal are confident they can kill it.
"Right now a majority of legislators in both chambers understand that having local governments and politicians set rates on rentals is unfortunately likely to have the opposite effect of what the proponents hope to accomplish," says Shawn Cleave, lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors.
A first hearing on the tenant-protection bills is scheduled for March 2. Kotek is banking on colleagues learning more about her proposals from tenants and landlords during hearings this spring.
"People do change their minds over the course of the session," she says.