The Oregon Legislature Pledged Serious Housing Reforms. How Lawmakers Fell Flat.

Rent control was always a long shot. But what happened to other tenant protections?

(Natalye Anne St. Lucia)

The 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature concluded last week in a flurry of high-profile victories for Democrats, including a hike of the legal smoking age to 21 and health insurance coverage for undocumented immigrant children.

What didn't happen: serious housing reforms.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) came into the session with big ambitions to confront the statewide housing shortage and wave of rising rents by limiting "no cause" evictions, removing local limits of where developers can build apartments, and even overturning the state's ban on rent control. None succeeded.

Instead, Democratic leaders had to content themselves with small victories, mostly doling out more dollars to the state's affordable housing budget.

Many of Democrats' most far-reaching proposals had as much chance as a rich man making it to heaven, because they ran squarely into constituencies with the power to render reforms dead on arrival.

Kotek last week acknowledged she had come up short.

"In 2018, we will push to finish this session's unfinished business on housing," Kotek said. "The depth and breadth of Oregon's housing crisis has finally made this issue too big to ignore."

But it wasn't too big to fail. Here's how the Dems' housing agenda died:

Rent control

House: yes

Senate: no

For 32 years, Oregon has barred cities and counties from capping how much landlords can raise rents. Kotek included a reversal of the state's rent-control ban in House Bill 2004, a package of tenant protections that squeaked through the House. But the Senate's Human Resources Committee stripped that provision out of the bill to get it to the Senate floor.

No-cause eviction ban

House: yes

Senate: no

This was perhaps Kotek's top housing priority: a ban on landlords evicting tenants without justification. But Senate Democrats again watered down HB 2004 in committee so that the ban would apply only to tenants in month-to-month leases. That eroded the bill's support, without managing to persuade its chief Democratic opponents: Sens. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) and Rod Monroe (D-Portland), himself a landlord. At least one of them had to flip for the bill to pass. Neither did.

Removing demolition protections for historic districts

House: no

Senate: no

Kotek went to war with Portland neighborhood associations this session, trying to remove their ability to block home demolitions in historic districts. But House Bill 2007 waited in line behind the tenant protections package. And when the eviction ban flopped, Kotek couldn't rally support for taking on anti-development crusaders.

Mortgage interest deduction reforms

House: no

Senate: no

Cutting the mortgage interest deduction was always a long shot. House Bill 2006 would have raised $300 million in revenue for the state by removing a tax break for homeowners paying off their mortgages. It would have removed the tax break for couples making more than $200,000 or for people who own a second home. The bill was never a priority for Democrats, and advocates gave it up for dead midway through the session.

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