By James Bash
For the Hollywood Star News
Although skyrocketing prices for homes in Portland have grabbed the headlines for the past few years, large increases in monthly rent are a more recent topic. Renters have been particularly hard hit by the current housing crisis, and it is not uncommon for tenants to find themselves in a financial pickle after receiving a big hike in their rent. Until recently, tenants in Portland have had nowhere to turn for help, if their rent has spiked. They have either had to pay up or find a new place to live. But Portland Tenants United, a new non-profit organization, is attempting to remedy the situation.
Founded in January, Portland Tenants United seeks to help renters caught in the squeeze of high rent increases and eviction. The group does this by organizing tenants to advocate for tenant protection and to control their own rent.
The group has already had some success, most recently with tenants at the Ash Street Properties near Southeast 119th Avenue. Renters in that apartment building had to pay a 45-percent hike in rent or face eviction. PTU has helped the tenants to form the Ash Street Tenants Union and protest the demands by A&G Rental Management. Their action (reported in Willamette Week on August 18) included a letter of demands to A&G and picketing that resulted in extending the deadline for the residents to make a decision.
That extension is a small victory for the tenants of Ash Street Properties that came after working together as a group. Communications director and community organizer, Gabriel Erbs, noted that it is difficult for individual renters to go it alone.
“There are legal avenues for renters, but the laws in Oregon are stacked in favor of property managers and landlords,” said Erbs. “That’s why PTU is advocating for rent control and just-cause eviction laws. When tenants can come together as a union, they can take on property managers and landlords. We can be successful even if city officials and state legislatures have failed to act to protect tenants under the law. Rent stabilization is one of our goals. A five-percent increase in rent per year would account for the three-percent cap on property taxes in Oregon plus some maintenance and a small profit. This would help to keep tenants housed.”
PTU was started as the outgrowth from a number of events called the Portland Renter Assemblies that took place last year. The assemblies were a preliminary, grassroots coming together of tenants who were suffering from catastrophic rent increases and threat of eviction. From those assemblies PTU was formed as a political voice for tenants.
“PTU’s first major public event involved a march and rally in downtown Portland in January,” said Erbs. “That went really well. We held another rally in March that also attracted a large crowd of around 300 people.”
Membership in the PTU is $5 a month, and Erbs acknowledged that no one will be turned away for lack of ability to pay. Members can have input into the organization through participation in general assemblies and public events. PTU does not have a web site, but you can find it in Facebook.
PTU has been appealing to tenants in North and Northeast Portland by hosting several events. In July it hosted a barbeque at Columbia Park, and recently PTU members went door to door in the Mock’s Crest neighborhood.
“The Mocks Crest effort went very well,” remarked Erbs. “People, including home owners, were so receptive to the idea of a tenants’ organization. We had about 200 people come out to the barbeque and discuss rent control. Where else can you find that?”
Even though some tenants have been helped by PTU, they have declined to be interviewed for this article because they were afraid that it would jeopardize their situation with their landlords.
Overall, Erbs sees a positive future for tenants of the Rose City and for PTU.
“From the beginning we have been working with allies – homeowners and community members who understand that tenants’ rights are the root of solving the housing crisis,” explained Erbs. “Even landlords have recognized that they don’t have to exploit people. You can have a fair, honest, and profitable business that isn’t based on exploiting tenants. It’s the best way for everyone.”