What happened?

Three members of a commission advising the Portland Housing Bureau on the city's landlord-tenant relations resigned this month.

The trio represents landlord interests on the Rental Services Commission, which advises the Housing Bureau on rental policy. They include Deborah Imse, executive director of Multifamily NW, the industry group for the largest landlords in the state, and Leah Sykes, a lawyer on the board of Multifamily NW.

It's the second round of resignations by landlord interests from the RSC. Last year, landlords resigned when Mayor Ted Wheeler sided with tenants in a debate over paying moving costs for evicted tenants.

Why are they quitting?

In letters sent to the Housing Bureau, both Imse and Sykes complained about fellow commissioner Margot Black, who represents Portland Tenants United, a group that has organized tenant unions at eight buildings across the city, including at Milepost 5, an affordable arts community. (Sykes advises the landlord at Milepost 5.) Both letters asked the Housing Bureau, in veiled terms, to kick Black off the commission.

Black is Portland's most aggressive advocate for renters in a city where the balance of power is shifting between landlords and tenants ("The Most Dangerous Woman in Portland," WW, Dec. 7, 2016). Housing remains the most heated issue in Portland, and the effort to oust her makes clear Black still represents a danger to Portland landlords.

In their letters, both Imse and Sykes said they were treated rudely by Black, but cited few specifics. Imse noted "hostile mannerisms directed at me personally." Both said a Nov. 19 meeting was the final straw.

"I would request that the unprincipled treatment of Commissioner Leah Sykes at the Nov. 19, 2019, RSC meeting be formally reviewed," wrote Imse.

What's the underlying issue?

Milepost 5. On Nov. 19, Sykes objected to Black reading aloud a letter from a tenant at Milepost 5.

"The email contained statements disparaging me personally," she wrote.
The email Black read alleged Sykes had advised the landlord at Milepost 5 on how to make it possible to evict a tenant organizer $5 short on his rent.

Sykes says the confrontation was inappropriate and unrelated to any business the commission was considering. The real issue, she says, is the "harm to Portlanders when our leaders are prevented from considering more than one perspective when making determinations about complex issues."

Black says she views the resignation letters as an effort by landlords to preserve their power. "The RSC gives me and other formerly silenced tenants an opportunity to speak truth to power," she adds, "and that makes power very uncomfortable."

What's the larger significance?

Landlords are pressuring Wheeler to force Black off the commission as the mayor runs for re-election in May 2020. Real estate interests will be key to Wheeler's donor base.

In his first campaign, Wheeler was an enthusiastic supporter of ending no-cause evictions for tenants. He and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly voted for a rule forcing landlords to pay moving costs for tenants evicted without cause. (Eudaly is also up for re-election next year, and landlords will probably support her opponents.)

Wheeler's spokesman wouldn't say whether the mayor would stand by Black.

"The mayor's office is aware of the resignations," says mayoral spokesman Tim Becker. "It's a priority of our office to ensure the continued operational success of the commission, so we are working closely with Housing Bureau staff to identify and address issues."