By Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer)
As runaway housing costs continue to oppress millions of working Americans, one state is addressing the rent crisis in one fell swoop.
After picking up a series of key legislative seats in 2018, Oregon progressives intend to remake a generations-old racist, crony capitalist housing system - in a single legislative session. Led by Speaker Tina Kotek, housing advocates believe the 2019 session presents a window of opportunity to defeat the types of entrenched interests that have created and perpetuated housing insecurity in Oregon and across the country.
Kotek recently announced plans to make Oregon the first state to eliminate apartment bans in cities and suburbs, and the only state in the country to enact statewide rent stabilization limiting rent increases and no-cause evictions. Ending apartment bans would restore people’s ability to build duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and other dense community-oriented homes in amenity-filled urban neighborhoods and suburbs that have banned them for nearly a century to maintain economic and racial segregation. Enacting rent stabilization would set a fair, low ceiling on how much landlords can increase rent every year, while preventing them from evicting tenants without cause – in response to the steep rent hikes and no-cause evictions that have long plagued tenants.
Accomplishing these goals would not only thrust Oregon to the forefront of progressive leaders on housing, it would offer a roadmap for other states and cities (and even the federal government) to attack exclusionary zoning and greedy rent profiteering together, as a comprehensive strategy to unravel broken, often crooked housing practices. With 2020 presidential candidates beginning to wade into the housing debate, Oregon’s pursuit of comprehensive reform could have powerful ripple effects, shifting the national housing debate in a more ambitiously progressive direction.
With 111 million Americans living in rental housing – and over half of them experiencing cost burdens – renters have long needed relief, but public policymakers have offered them hardly an iota of tangible help. That may be in part because many politicians have treated zoning and rent stabilization proposals as an either/or proposition – championing one solution and sneering or condescending at the other. To many, our deep housing problems can only be solved by building more homes or only by capping rents; any other alternative proposal is a hoodwinking distraction. Kotek and Oregon progressives show that, in the midst of a crisis, leaders should use every tool at their disposal.
While rent stabilization, eviction protection, and ending apartment bans all seek to address high rents and housing instability, they tackle the housing crisis from different directions, ultimately working better in concert than they would alone.
Like most states, Oregon presently bans rent control statewide – the result of a nearly 40-year-old effort from corporate landlords and various real estate interests. In recent years, local activist groups like the Community Alliance of Tenants and Portland Tenants United have agitated for rent stabilization measures, prompting leaders like Kotek to take up the issue, and finally opening the door to meaningful action to protect tenants.
However, enacting only rent stabilization without dealing with home supply risks only protecting current tenants, and providing no relief to prospective renters. It could also potentially lock current tenants into problematic or even unsafe situations – ranging from bad landlords to bad relationships – because without other housing options, they can’t afford to lose their rent-controlled apartment. This dynamic can be addressed by ending apartment bans, giving prospective renters a better shot at finding an affordable home that meets their needsand giving current renters more leverage and freedom.
Oregon’s widespread apartment bans hail from much farther back - with Portland first adopting theirs in 1924. Apartment bans generally spread across the country around this time, in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision banning explicit racial segregation in zoning. Because single-family, detached homes are the most expensive form of housing, banning other types of homes offered cities and neighborhoods a legal loophole to exclude people of color and other economically oppressed populations. Recent efforts from groups like Portland for Everyone have catapulted apartment bans to the forefront of the public housing debate and created the policy space to build more diverse and affordable home options.
Yet, a siloed strategy of building more housing would likely take years to have any serious impact on rent costs, keeping current tenants in a prolonged state of insecurity. Just as ending apartment bans improves the effectiveness of rent stabilization, capping rent increases and stopping no-cause evictions immediately helps the most at-risk renters and ensures people immediately feel the effects of reform.
The rent stabilization proposal from Oregon progressives is not perfect. The plan calls for a 7% annual cap for rent increases, which is likely too high – roughly three times the average annual wage increase for a worker, and only applying the cap to buildings 15 years or older leaves huge portions of tenant population unprotected. A sounder strategy would be to include all rental homes as of 2018, and give a brief exemption to future buildings, allowing them flexibility in their first few years of operation (potentially 5 to 10) before the rules apply to them. These changes should be made before the bill becomes law.
Even with the shortcomings of the rent stabilization proposal, that Oregon progressives are pursuing tenant protection and home availability in one fell swoop matters, both for that state, and for the country as a whole.
Ending apartment bans – thus letting thousands of home options bloom in the urban and suburban landscape – would give tenants the power to walk out on a bad landlord and thus negotiate rents down or find better accommodations. Ending no-cause eviction and providing rent stabilization would allow tenants safety, security, and peace-of-mind that their landlord cannot toss them out on a whim. WIth both reforms combined, the power proposition between tenant and landlord flips, with the renter finally getting the upper hand.
The United States would largely not be facing a housing crisis of this scale if we lodged many more people in social housing owned by the public, or by heavily regulated public-private partnerships, as is done in much of Europe. Oregon progressives have made some strides in recent years moving toward more social housing options, such as recently passing a measure to ease the financing process and by proposing nearly a half billion dollars in public housing funding over the next two years. But any state will struggle to address the crisis through funding its own social housing alone. Even a state as small as Oregon is short an estimated 155,000 homes, which would cost roughly $10 to 13 billion – the entire annual state budget – to build, plus many more billions to acquire the necessary land.
The federal government has the coffers to build adequate social housing but even cash-strapped states can immediately take aggressive action for housing insecure people by refashioning the private housing market to center renters instead of landlords, providing security for tenants who like where they live and strengthening the negotiating hand for those who may want new homes. That why Kotek’s comprehensive strategy shows so much promise.
Together, rent stabilization and the abundant housing options made possible through the abolition of apartment bans can provide a potent one-two punch to address the housing crisis today and in the near future. Over the long-term, we will need bold action from the federal government to add plentiful social housing to the mix. But as states look to what they can do right now – and 2020 candidates build out their housing platforms – they should turn their eyes to Oregon, and the progressive vision of leaders like Speaker Tina Kotek.
Henry Kraemer (@HenryKraemer) is a third-generation socialist activist, organizer, and writer living in Portland, OR. He spent the last ten years advocating for voting rights and youth political power, including spearheading the creation of America’s first automatic voter registration law and its expansion across the country. Turning his attention to the built environment, he is currently working in renewable energy and fighting to end exclusionary zoning in Portland and beyond.