The fight over tenant protection in Portland has turned into a battle of dueling legal memos.
On the one side is the pro-renters group Portland Tenants United, better known for its loud protests (see video below) and its call for a rent freeze.
On the other side is Multifamily NW, an association of landlords.
Portland Tenants United has presented city elected leaders with a legal memo, dated Sept. 12, that argues state law allows the city to impose rent control on an emergency basis, to ban evictions for which landlords offer no reason, and to require landlord to pay tenants' moving costs when evictions aren't for cause.
Multifamily NW has have its own legal memo—dated Sept. 14—that argues the city cannot restrict "no cause" evictions without a change of laws at the state level. (The group also has a political action committee, the newly renamed Equitable Housing PAC, which has begun fundraising by warning of "radical" tenant groups.)
Tenants and landlords are gearing up for a fight in Salem next year, after House Speaker Tina Kotek announced on Sept. 12 that she would push for a ban on no cause evictions as well as emergency rent control laws statewide.
But there's a possibility the city could act without action from the legislature. That's what the tenants are pushing for and the landlords are pushing against.
Portland Tenants United has a significant ally in Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, who in February said he would restrict "no cause" evictions and has promised to act even without movement from the state.
"We've led on this issue," says Wheeler spokesman Michael Cox. "We made addressing Portland's housing crisis a centerpiece of our campaign, and we are prepared to explore the full range of options to ensure Portlanders are not priced out or moved our of our city."
But the tenant groups still face an uphill battle in their case to get the city to act immediately.
The city attorney had already weighed in, declaring state law preempts the city from banning no cause evictions — a view Wheeler said in May he wouldn't let dictate his policies.
But City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who met with Portland Tenants United earlier this week and (like Wheeler) was presented with a copy of the legal memo, remains unconvinced.
"With everything Speaker Kotek has said about what she hopes to achieve in the next session, I think that's where the focus of the action should be," says Saltzman.
"The city doing something precipitous that may not withstand a challenge, I'm not sure it serves any purpose at this point," he says, "and in fact may detract from the legislative efforts."
Portland Tenants United organizer Margot Black says Saltzman is wrong.
"If he thinks that throwing a life raft to the tenants of Portland who can't wait for July for whatever watered down loophole-ridden bill comes out of the legislature, then he's not listening to or representing Portlanders," she says.
It's been a year since tenant groups began pushing the city and the county institute rent freeze. In the last year, much has changed. City Hall declared a housing emergency and passed rules requiring 90-day notices for rent increases and no cause evictions.
The Legislature followed up by passing laws that allow inclusionary zoning and the 90-day notice for rent hikes.
But state law explicitly prohibits rent control with an exception for natural or man-made disaster that "eliminates a substantial portion" of the housing stock.
Whether Portland's rental crunch meets the definition of a disaster is what landlords and tenants are arguing over.
John DiLorenzo, the lawyer who sued the city last year over the 90-day notice, and who prepared the legal memo for the landlords this week, says the only reason the city's 90-day notice wasn't overturned was because the Legislature changed state law.
Otherwise, he says, the city wouldn't have been able to defend its policy in court. "We were close to winning that case," says DiLorenzo.
Black says the city can still pressure landlords into immediate negotiations.
"We want them to come to the table," she says, "to work out a more sustainable solution that keeps tenants stabilized in their homes."