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Oregon law seeks to protect renters

As population outpaces housing, apartment prices soar by ANDREW SELSKY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 7, 2017 at 1:47 a.m.
Oregon state Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, speaks on the House floor in Salem last month in support of her bill that would ban most no-cause evictions, while giving cities in Oregon the freedom to adopt their own rent-control policies.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Yesica Sanchez recently found a notice attached to the front door of her two-bedroom apartment that said her rent was almost doubling. The divorced mother held the paper in her hand in a state of shock.

Yesica Sanchez and other tenants at the Normandy Apartments in Portland, Ore., were notified recently that their rent was being almost doubled.

"We wanted to faint. After I pay all of my bills, I don't have anything left to pay that extra amount," Sanchez said while visiting the apartment of her cousin, who got a similar notice. So did every other resident of the Normandy Apartments in Portland.

Oregon has become one of America's most popular moving destinations, with tens of thousands of newcomers each year drawn by its forests and mountains, its quirky city of Portland and its job opportunities. Oregon set a historical low jobless rate in March of 3.8 percent.

But the inflow has caused a rental housing crisis across the state, with too few homes being built. Families face steep rent increases or evictions to make way for better-heeled tenants. People have even resorted to living in tents or their vehicles. Now, lawmakers are debating remedies for what House Speaker Tina Kotek calls an "emergency that demands bold action."

In one of the session's most bitterly contested proposals, the Legislature is considering forcing landlords to pay tenants one month's rent for no-cause evictions, and even three months' rent in certain cases. The bill also reverses a 1985 ban on most rent controls in the state, allowing cities and counties to adopt their own.

If it passes, Oregon would be at the forefront in the U.S. in establishing renter protections, said Doug Farquhar of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Rep. Karin Power, a Democrat from the Portland suburb of Milwaukie and one of the bill's sponsors, said the housing crisis is a statewide problem that calls for a statewide solution.

But other lawmakers spoke in opposition, saying the measure would be a disincentive for people to buy or build properties to rent, ultimately worsening the housing crisis.

Charlie Tabasko, a Realtor in the coastal town of Waldport, was among almost 400 people to submit written testimony, an extraordinarily high number. He said making landlords "bear the burden of society's inequities" is crazy.

Don Moeller, a retiree in Salem, also wrote in, saying residential facilities for senior citizens should be barred from increasing rent beyond tenants' ability to pay, possibly making them homeless. One hundred senior citizens, the oldest 98, signed Moeller's letter.

"Oregon is in trouble, and that's why I'm voting yes for House Bill 2004," Rep. Mark Meek, a Democrat from Oregon City, announced before House members approved the bill by a 31-27 vote.

It is now before the Senate. If the Senate approves, the measure goes to Gov. Kate Brown, who recently called the crisis unacceptable.

The Oregon Senate also is considering a bill that authorizes local governments to expand urban growth boundaries when housing availability drops below a threshold.

Many U.S. states ban rent control, though Nebraska law allows tenants to recover three months' rent if they're unlawfully evicted or if landlords shut off utilities. In Michigan, lawmakers are considering repealing the state's rent-control prohibition. A similar proposal in California was recently put on hold by its sponsor.

In 1971, when Oregon's population was 2.1 million, Gov. Tom McCall was so concerned about population growth eroding quality of life that he tried to dissuade people from moving to America's 33rd state.

"We want you to visit our state of excitement often," McCall said in a speech. "Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live. Or if you do have to move in to live, don't tell any of your neighbors where you are going."

Despite those words, Oregon's population has almost doubled since then to 4.1 million. From July 2015 to July 2016, Oregon was America's sixth-fastest growing state in percentage population.

Finding, and keeping, housing for the 40 percent of Oregonians who rent has become a dire situation in the woodsy towns in the south, in the mountains, along the Pacific coast and in Portland.

Among the most vulnerable, experts say, are senior citizens, minorities and victims of domestic abuse who can't afford to move out of the abuser's home. Historically black Portland neighborhoods are being lost to gentrification.

Home construction since the recession has lagged far behind demand. To meet the current need, 110,000 new housing units -- almost six times the number built last year -- would have to be constructed. But builders have trouble getting financing from lenders stung by the downturn, said Josh Lehner, an economist with the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.

After Sanchez's rent doubled from $700, it took many calls and filing of income and credit reports before she found a new home. Outside, painters were already remodeling the complex that was sold to a new landlord.

Sanchez and her 5-year-old son moved to Oregon from Oaxaca, Mexico, four years ago, and she fretted about keeping him in a nearby bilingual elementary school. She has a car, so will be able to drive him to school.

Yesica's cousin, Fidelina Sanchez, has been less lucky.

She glanced around the apartment she can no longer afford and nervously twisted strands of her ponytail while her daughter played under a religious shrine.

"We are still looking for a place," Fidelina Sanchez said.

Information for this article was contributed by Julia Shumway, David Eggert, and Sophia Bollag of The Associated Press.

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