It was May 1, 1985, and all seemed quiet in the Rose City—at least according to the front page of that day’s Oregonian. Hidden in the metro section, however, was a tidbit of news destined to fuel a debate that is about to go nuclear: in Salem the House of Representatives was hearing arguments on HB 2505, a proposal to permanently outlaw any and all forms of rent control in Oregon.
Three decades later, the issue is back with a vengeance. According to the Portland Housing Bureau, in 2015 average rents citywide shot up by 9 percent, or roughly $100 per month. Since 2006, rents in the Portland metropolitan area rose 63 percent, while average renter incomes increased by just 39 percent. In Portland, some activists are calling for a complete rent freeze, others for more measured, percentage-based forms of rent control. But until the state law is repealed or amended, those ideas are just so much rhetoric. Speaker Tina Kotek has promised a serious fight to change the law, announcing to a group of housing advocates in September that things would likely get “uncomfortable” before it was over.
“Housing affordability is certainly a statewide concern, but every community is different,” says state senator Michael Dembrow, a Democrat from Northeast Portland who’s prepared to tackle the issue at the legislative session in January. “We need to give local elected leaders and local voters the ability to come up with what’s right for their cities.”
The troubles that led to HB 2505 began in 1982 in Lane County, where mobile home tenants rebelled against rent increases.
“We had double-digit interest rates, double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment. The timber economy was in the tank,” recalls former state representative Dick Springer of the early ’80s. “It was pretty rough.”
The tenants gathered enough signatures for two county-level ballot measures that would have returned rents to 1980 levels and limited annual rent increases. Both failed, but one measure came within 1,000 votes of passing. Spooked, home builders and landlords leaned on Salem to rush a two-year ban on new rent control legislation. In 1985, as the temporary bill was set to expire, home builders urged a permanent ban, warning that rent control would “disrupt an orderly housing market, increase deferred maintenance of existing housing stock and lead to [the] abandonment of existing rental units.”
Next year’s legislature is likely to revisit those arguments in some form, with the same interests lined up against rent control. Back in ’85, one Portlander put forth a domino theory.
“How could Tualatin resist rent control if Tigard had it?” asked a youthful, pre-mayoral Charlie Hales, then spokesman for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. “And I think equally important is the fact that seven other states ... have enacted permanent prohibitions against local rent control in the interest of statewide concern.”
Hales—who declared a housing emergency last year and will leave office at the end of this month—now says the threat of steep rent hikes was more abstract in 1985.
“I think the state preemption should be lifted,” he says. “In this era it’s mostly cities that are taking the lead: climate action, ban the box, marriage equality.... The flow of innovation is from local, to state, to national, rather than the other way around.”