Margot Black Wants to Take on the Landlords and Portland City Hall

With Portland Tenants United, she's harnessing the power of renters to change this city with a new tenants union.

It's the morning of Monday, Nov. 28, in Room 120 of the Multnomah County Courthouse, where tenants go to resolve eviction cases with their landlords.

There's an air of quiet desperation under the cold fluorescent lights, because tenants usually don't stand a chance.

Two tenants, huddled in the back corner of the first-floor courtroom, are about to flip that script.

The reason is wedged between them, and she stands out in this chamber of last resort: young, white and professionally dressed—red leather boots with heels and a black trench coat over an elegant dress.

Margot Black, 38, is not a lawyer. She is, however, a founder of a renters' rights group, Portland Tenants United. She is bundle of contradictions—a fighter who is quick to laugh, friendly and outgoing but also blunt. And she has been remarkably effective at making renters a political force for the first time in recent Portland history.

In eviction court, unlike criminal court, no one is entitled to free legal representation. Landlords have the upper hand. But Black found a lawyer with 40 years of experience to handle this case.

At 9:10 am, that lawyer, Craig Colby, arrives. He's only dimly aware of Portland Tenants United, but that's about to change.

The landlord has issued two improper eviction notices, the tenants allege.
Out in the hall, Colby exchanges business cards with Black, asking her where she works.

"I teach math at Lewis & Clark College," Black says, as she digs through her faded green leather purse. She's collected so many business cards in pursuit of her goal she sometimes confuses them with her own.

For the past year and a half, at least a few times a week, when the married mother of three wasn't teaching, she was shuttling her silver Honda Odyssey minivan not between soccer matches but between court, rallies or meetings in backrooms of bars and nonprofit offices.

Black's decision to get Colby involved won the tenants an extra four months—and she moved onto her next battle.

Her cause took a dramatic step forward in November. On Election Day, Portland did something it hasn't done in 24 years—it tossed out an incumbent.

City Commissioner Steve Novick, until recently a darling of the left, lost his well-funded re-election bid to Chloe Eudaly, a bookstore owner with no political experience and almost no money.

What Eudaly did have was a single, overwhelming focus—housing.

Tenants—and Black—stand to benefit more from that victory than any other group in town.

A year ago, Black was unknown. Now she's a driving force and the face of a new tenants' rights movement that combines the energy of Portland street protest with policy research, lobbying and campaigning.

Rents have increased more than 30 percent in the past four years while renters' wages, adjusted for inflation, have fallen. Housing is the most important political issue in Portland.

Related: Portland Renters Feeling the Squeeze, While Homeowners See Values Rise: Portland's State of Housing Report

It's no accident, then, that Black and Eudaly rode renters' discontent to political power.

Many politicians rightly view K-12 parents as a potent voting bloc, but fewer than 20 percent of Portland households have kids in public schools. More than twice that number are renters.

Portland is changing rapidly, and battles over where and how people will live are central to that change. Black has stepped into a leadership vacuum for a previously impotent group—renters—who now realize they have a say in what happens to them. She combines a powerful intellect with a hard-edged approach unusual in Portland activism. And she's grabbed hold of two issues that concern everybody: money and a place to sleep.

"There were a lot of people who were searching for solutions," says Eudaly.

"Until the Legislature overturns the ban on rent control and our elected officials get it together to protect renters, renters need to use their collective power to bargain with landlords—and know their rights. [Black] has made this happen. Without her, it would never have materialized. She's just relentless, righteous in her anger. She is passionate and extremely intelligent."

While Black now has the ear of Eudaly, who says she will push for a rent freeze and an end to landlords' right to evict tenants without reason, Black also has developed a relationship with Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler.

The prevailing conversation in the housing crisis has been about increasing supply, but Portland Tenants United extracted promises from Wheeler during the campaign centered instead on tenant protections.

At Black's urging, Wheeler adopted a Tenants' Bill of Rights, including a key provision to restrict "no-cause" evictions, in which landlords aren't required to give a reason for kicking out tenants.

Related: One Question for Candidates: Should Portland Have Rent Control?

"PTU and Margot in particular are giving voice to the housing anxiety being felt across the city," says Wheeler. "I'm listening."

Portland Tenants United is guided by a 15-member organizing committee. The union formed its first two affiliates at buildings where tenants got together to negotiate collectively with their landlords. It counts 100 organizers as its core, and landlords have already taken note.

"They do not appear to be a bunch of amateurs," says John DiLorenzo, a lobbyist for Portland landlords. "They have certainly been successful in getting people to notice them. Obviously, they have [House Speaker Tina Kotek's] attention. I am treating them like a group of pros who know what they're doing."

Advocates have floated the idea of rent control in Portland before, but it got no traction.

"Back in the '90s, there was not any appetite; people were not ready to hear it," says Margaret Bax, who was housing policy adviser to then-City Commissioners Gretchen Kafoury and Erik Sten.

Portland Tenants United isn't flying solo. They are a left flank to groups across the state that are seeking an end to no-cause evictions and to overturn the state's ban on rent control.

Bax says today's tenant advocates are a new breed.

"They're better organized," she says. "They're more engaged in coming up with workable solutions."

But Black wants to go a step further—she wants a rent freeze in Portland now until the state creates more restrictions.

That's an example of the aggressive tactics Black and PTU employ.

"They've raised the volume on the issue," says Portland State University professor Lisa Bates.

The tenant union's protests have alienated some. In February, PTU was part of a protest, banging on the doors of the Oregon Legislature to little avail. The group made no headway with the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners after shutting down an April commission meeting. There are advocates who fear the way Black has pushed for tenants' rights will backfire.

Black's agenda faces real opposition: Powerful landlords raised $310,000 for their newly renamed political action committee—Equitable Housing PAC. That's more than 15 times the amount they raised in any year since 2009.

DiLorenzo says the landlords' record fundraising was easy after Kotek's announcement she wants to lift the state's ban on rent control. "Maybe I owe her a hug," he says.

DiLorenzo's group has been using cash to fight PTU's rent-control proposal in Salem.

But there are a lot more renters than landlords, and as Eudaly's victory showed, they can be mobilized.

Black is fully aware of their combined might: She says she'll escalate the stakes if lawmakers fail to protect tenants in the 2017 leglislative session that begins in February.

"The nuclear option," she says, "would be a rent strike."

Ultimately, a tenants' union is about demonstrating its collective power.

"For anyone who acts likes it's insane and crazy: Have you heard of the labor movement?" Black says. "This is how we got the weekend."

Black says her adult life has been shaped by landlords' power over her.
At age 19, Black was a single mom with a 7-month-old baby when she was first evicted—from an apartment in Portland's West Slope.

Her boyfriend had recently moved out, and she was still paying the rent. Then, seemingly for no reason, she was evicted.

"I was so confused," Black says. She sought an explanation.

Eventually, an onsite property manager told her, "We're not running a whorehouse here, Margot."

That didn't make sense. "I was this frumpy girl who didn't really have any friends," she says. "I was in a total panic."

Eviction sent her into a tailspin: She found a new apartment, but it was far from her job waiting tables at Red Robin. She had no car, and after repeatedly arriving late for work, she was fired.

"I got a ticket on the express train to poverty," Black said at a September rally.

Black was born in Salt Lake City to a struggling family. Her mother, who has schizophrenia, was 21 when Black was born. Black never knew her father and was raised by her grandmother.

When she graduated from high school, Black was 18 and pregnant. That's when she moved to Portland.

"She's the poster child for someone who should be a homeless drug addict," says Sammy Black, her husband of 10 years and a co-founder of PTU.

What saved Margot Black? "She's really good at judging people's character," her husband says.

She also met Doug Stewart, now 61, a Unitarian church youth group director from Salt Lake City who'd also moved to Portland. Stewart essentially adopted Black, offering her a place to live for a few weeks that turned into a few years.
Against Stewart's advice, Black quit a receptionist job to return to school full-time.

"The high energy and going-for-it are part of her personality; that and putting herself out there," Stewart says. "It also seems to work out for her."

Black graduated cum laude with a math degree from Lewis & Clark College in 2003. She then earned a master's degree at the University of Oregon.
While in Eugene, she married Sammy, a fellow grad student. And she argued with her landlord.

"Here's my weakness: When someone is targeting me in a clear way, that fight-or-flight thing, I fight," Black says.

Five years ago, Black and her husband moved to Portland with their three kids and took jobs teaching math at local colleges.

Soon Black was hit with another no-cause eviction, this time from the landlord of a house she was renting in the Maplewood neighborhood. The landlord's daughter was unexpectedly moving back to town.

The landlord told Black she was "just a renter."

The comment stuck with her. "I felt so keenly aware of not mattering, not being important," she says. "It was becoming aware of what a classist system it was."
Black began writing to politicians, including then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, asking for changes to state law to protect renters. She also wrote to U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish.

She wasn't yet an organizer, but she was on her way.  "I will be working very hard to make sure this doesn't happen to other families in the future," Black emailed Mainlander Property Management in August 2012. When her husband's two-year academic post ended without another job in sight, they downsized to an apartment, but not before surrendering their security deposit on their previous rental because the landlord said the house was damaged.

That financial penalty helped tip them into bankruptcy in 2014, Black says.

She delayed aspirations of homeownership—which she now calls a "pyramid scheme."

"I don't want to join the country club; I want the country club to be open to everyone," she says.

More than two years ago, Black started a Facebook group for renters, PDX Renters Unite!, after hearing numerous stories of no-cause evictions. Now it has about 2,700 members.

In classic Portland fashion, Black made the leap from virtual to real-life advocacy because of an art installation.

In early 2015, artist Tori Abernathy held a series of renters' assemblies at HQ Objective gallery on West Burnside Street. Participants sat (uncomfortably) on neon-colored rocks. Abernathy, who would leave Portland after a no-cause eviction, wanted to raise the profile of the issue.

Black, who attended the assemblies, wanted to do more than that.

She attended Legislative Lobby Days at the state Capitol in spring 2015, and discovered to her surprise there was no group working on rent control.

Then WW published a story examining common misconceptions about apartments and rent control ("The 5 Myths About Portland Apartments," WW, June 10, 2015). In the story, tenants were described as "wild-eyed" and "tie-dyed" and having just moved their "drum kit."

That characterization became a rallying cry, Black says: "The article came out, and we were like, 'Fuck that.'"

On June 18, 2015, Black convened the first meeting of what would become Portland Tenants United at KBOO radio station. At the meeting, Black said she rejected the polite discourse that defines Portland politics. She wanted a rent strike immediately. She proposed that thousands of tenants not pay rent until they were given protections that would keep them in their homes. She learned quickly how much she didn't know about organizing.

"She has a very strong will," says former City Council candidate and housing activist Nick Caleb, who attended the first meetings of PTU.

Black soon connected with Eudaly, before Eudaly entered the 2016 race and became a long-shot, little-known challenger to Novick. They first met at Eudaly's store, Reading Frenzy, on July 21, 2015, when San Francisco author James Tracy came to discuss his book about tenant activism in the Bay Area, Dispatches Against Displacement.

In late September, Black and Eudaly sat down to discuss the plight of renters. They met on a rainy day near Black's house "for a huge download"—driving together to Marco's Cafe in Multnomah Village and later moving to Village Coffee to continue the discussion.

"We talked about tenants' rights," Black says. "It was validating to have those conversations."

Says Eudaly: "We've been through a real intense learning process this last year."

Black joined the City Club of Portland's committee on housing affordability and maneuvered her way onto then-mayoral candidate Ted Wheeler's housing committee.

It's been hard to be a Portland renter in recent years. The median income for Portland renters is $30,000, according to the Portland Housing Bureau's 2016 State of Housing report; median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $18,240 a year, and vacancies are rare.

In January 2016, Portland Tenants United won its first victory for renters, forcing a landlord to back down from evicting a tenant of 33 years.

"Game on," Black says. "There was no turning back. The word is 'intoxicating.' The idea that we could mount this threat and stop this eviction. The sheriff's note was on his door. I guess we have power; how about that? That's pretty cool."
The victory won acclaim—and publicity. At a Portland Tenants United open house a few weeks later, 300 people renters showed up, eager to learn more.
Black had struck a chord.

The increasing awareness of the city's tight housing market makes it easy for Portland Tenants United to grow. They're gaining members by the week. The group is still working to set up a website, and doesn't have a precise count of its members, but they are now a regular presence at rallies and when housing is on the City Council agenda. Their black-and-white T-shirts read, "I Rent. I Vote."
Novick, the first council incumbent to lose since 1992, can attest to that. Many observers attribute his stunning defeat to the energy and visibility Eudaly and Black have given tenants' concerns.

"The anxiety around housing is real across all spectrums of our community," says Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots. "Obviously housing was key issue for voters."

At PTU's first official press conference Nov. 18, Steven Demarest, president of Service Employees International Union Local 503, mentioned that Eudaly's successful critique of Novick should put the other city commissioners on notice.

"The message they should take is, they can be replaced," said  Demarest. "The message they should take is that they need to get their priorities straight and assign the correct urgency to the humanitarian crisis that is facing our city right now. The message they should take is to do their jobs."

Portland Tenants United's strength is that it can work both an outside game—with rallies and direct action—and an inside game, using access and strong relationships with elected officials.

In August, the group organized a tenants' union affiliate at a apartment building in East Portland, where tenants faced a 45 percent rent increase.

It's the sort of crippling hike that in the past might have activated a halfhearted response from advocates but nothing more. PTU members rallied outside the A&G Rental Management company, taking their list of demands straight into the office. They camped outside landlord Landon Marsh's house.

The results were small wins. The tenants got to stay an extra month before they moved and were allowed to use their security deposits for a month of rent.

"That public shaming hasn't been used in housing advocacy before," says Andrew Riley, who works at 1000 Friends of Oregon and is a PTU member. "I'm a policy wonk, but this kind of direct action gives tenants an opportunity to come together."

Landon Marsh says Black is "disorganized" and running an "amateur group" that kept demanding more and more. He says he had tried to keep rents low, but will not do so for new tenants.

"She's creating a problem for Portland," he says. "Now we're having to increase rent solely because of Margot Black."

Academics who've studied housing say Black's push for rent freezes and rent control would only reduce the supply of housing and make a tight market even tighter.

"The idea is that there are faceless, enormous Trumpesque landlords who are basically sitting on huge wads of cash; it may be fashionable," says Ethan Seltzer,  an urban studies professor at Portland State University, noting Portland is trying to promote small-scale development throughout the city. "If you want that kind of housing production, and you make the life of your landlords miserable, it's not going to happen."

Black is skeptical of such arguments.

She points to New York City, where advocates accustomed to renter protections view Portland as the Wild West, where landlords do whatever they want.

"Rent control and rent stabilization are the biggest way to protect tenants and keep families in homes," says Jonathan Westin, executive director of activist group New York Communities for Change, which is starting a national campaign to bring rent control to cities across the country. "No other solutions have been able to keep up with gentrification."

Regardless of who's right about what renter protections would do to supply, it's clear that Black has altered the political landscape.

Today, House Speaker Kotek, the most powerful Democrat in the state Legislature, wants to cap rents for a year and ban no-cause evictions.

And Black is far from finished. Galvanized by Eudaly's victory, tenant activists are already looking for candidates to challenge longtime incumbent city commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman, the former and current housing commissioners, in 2018.

Might Black be one of the new candidates?

"My intention is to run," she says. Noting Saltzman was already widely expected to face stiff competition, Black says she'll take on Fish:

"He needs a strong challenger."

Correction: A previous version of this story gave Ethan Seltzer's former title. He is an urban studies professor at Portland State University and a former director of the Institute for Portland Metropolitan Studies.

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