As a Portland Renter in a Squeezed Market, How Do I Stay Where I’m Living?

There are few easy answers for tenants who still can’t afford their apartments.

Nearly half of Portlanders are renters. For almost two years, some of them didn’t pay rent.

A state and local freeze on evictions for tenants unable to pay during the first year of COVID-19 expired in March. That means not only are tenants obligated to pay this month’s rent, they are obligated to pony up any back rent from the first year of the pandemic. (Freezes on nonpayment evictions still apply if tenants have a pending application for rental assistance.)

Those renewed obligations arrive amid a housing market that grew even tighter while Portland was in lockdown. Vacancy rates are dropping, rents are rising, and fewer apartment buildings are expected to be built this year than at any time since around 2012.

That means few easy answers for tenants who still can’t afford their apartments. We asked housing experts, lawyers and investors for a glimpse into Oregon’s rental market—and to offer advice.

If I get an eviction notice from my landlord, where do I look for help?

Becky Straus, a lawyer with the Oregon Law Center, says it’s crucial to find free legal representation to walk you through the eviction process and possibly help you avoid eviction.

Last August, City Hall launched a partnership with the OLC and Portland Community College’s CLEAR Clinic to fund free legal aid for Portlanders facing eviction and support the work of about 10 lawyers.

The city’s eviction defense program was launched because of COVID-19, but the program is expected to become permanent.

Straus says getting an attorney is the most essential way to stay in an apartment. Attorneys can advise tenants on their legal rights and connect them to rental assistance.

“If a tenant cannot get the rent paid and cannot access assistance, an attorney can help evaluate their rights: Do they have a defense to the eviction, or is there any other possibility to maintain housing stability?” Straus says. Negotiating with the landlord’s attorney is a crucial part of a lawyer’s role, she adds. Call the Eviction Defense Project at 1-888-585-9638 for assistance.

What other tenant protections are available right now?

Portland has some of the nation’s strongest renter protections and is far ahead of the rest of the state. In Portland, landlords can only raise rents by 7% plus inflation, and even that amount is capped at 10% unless the landlord is willing to pay a relocation fee if a tenant chooses to leave.

One of the biggest wins for Portland renters in recent years was the 2019 passage of the FAIR ordinance, which more tightly regulates screening processes and puts limits on security deposits. “Asking for two or three months’ security deposit is an issue for low-income tenants,” says tenant advocate Margot Black.

Also, under the act, landlords must evaluate rent applications on a first-come, first-served basis, and tenants with disabilities get priority for accessible units. In perhaps the most landmark change, applicants facing barriers to housing, such as a criminal record, a low credit score or a previous eviction, can submit documents explaining the circumstances. (The criminal record portion of this protection took effect statewide Jan. 1.)

What if I have mold in my apartment or my heat doesn’t work?

If your apartment is in crummy condition, you may not need to pay.

“It’s true that if you go through the right steps, you can withhold rent or get a rent abatement for habitability issues,” Black says.

First, notify your landlord of the problem in writing (when dealing with a rental dispute, it’s a good idea as a general practice to write everything down). Offer the landlord a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem, whether it’s a broken shower, mold or a leaky roof.

If the landlord does not take action to fix the problem within a reasonable period, find a lawyer. (There is no hard definition of “reasonable”; this subjectivity, Black says, offers landlords liberal wiggle room for argument.) Do not withhold rent prior to finding legal representation, because the landlord can use your nonpayment as a reason to evict you.

Mold is a slightly trickier issue: There’s no clear law that outlines the renter’s responsibility versus the landlord’s, says Black. “It’s just really hard for renters to get recourse on mold unless the walls are falling apart and you can see mold.”

Withholding rent is not the only recourse renters have to pressure landlords to address repairs. For more tactics, visit oregonrentersrights.org.

Can I find something cheaper downtown?

Downtown Portland has been gutted of its workforce for most of the past two years, with little commerce or foot traffic and a highly visible collection of tents. That makes the area less desirable. Is now the time to move downtown?

Two Stanford scholars coined a term last year, “the doughnut effect,” to describe how major cities have seen their cores hollowed out by remote work, leading to higher vacancy rates and lower rents.

Yet Portland’s downtown apartments haven’t seen a spike in vacancies. As of last fall, the vacancy rates downtown and in Northwest Portland were only slightly higher than in other parts of the city, at 4.6% and 6.1%, respectively. In downtown, that’s a 50% drop in vacancy since spring of 2021.

While conditions downtown have received plenty of press, less obvious pressures make it unlikely that rents in the city center will suddenly drop.

A fall report by CoStar shows that building development in the Portland market has slowed due to more expensive materials and a labor shortage, meaning demand for units will likely continue to outpace supply until at least 2024. Another report by investor advisory agency Marcus & Millichap found that more Portlanders will likely become renters as prices of single-family homes rise, meaning an even tighter squeeze on the rental market.

Greg Frick of HFO Investment Real Estate says Portland’s inclusionary housing policies and Oregon’s rent control laws have also driven some out-of-state investors away from the Portland market.

“Now with inclusionary zoning and the perception of what’s going on in Portland,” Frick says, “if as an investor you have the ability to go to other places, those are check marks that aren’t real favorable for the city of Portland.”

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”

See more about lowering the cost of Portland housing here!

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.