Formed by citizens with hope to help Portland’s tenants, the city’s rent control ordinance has complicated a pandemic-stricken housing situation, leaving landlords confused and tenants trying to hold them accountable.
The ordinance was approved by referendum in November 2020 to provide additional protections for tenants. It requires landlords to provide notice of rent increases and evictions and sets limits on rent increases.
It also established a Rent Board to work with the Housing Safety Office. The board is a group of city-appointed individuals who conduct hearings on tenant complaints and mediate disputes between tenants and landlords.
But public comments in recent City Council meetings suggest tenants have increasing concerns about rising rents and unexpected evictions.
Pine Tree Legal attorney Christopher Marot, who represents tenants who have been evicted, said he’s seen an increase in “no-cause” evictions where landlords often cite the sale of buildings as their primary motivation.
Marot said the city ordinance has created confusion and made it hard for tenants to know when landlords aren’t following the law.
Some tenants also say property sales haven’t been the only motivation behind recent evictions: they say landlords are just trying to increase their rental income.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin confirmed the Housing Safety Office is concerned the ordinance may be encouraging landlords to terminate leases so they can install new tenants and charge them higher rents.
The ordinance allows rent increases in a few circumstances, including tenant turnover. Such increases are capped at 5 percent.
‘My house key is a hotel card’
Janene Westberry, an at-will tenant on Washburn Avenue for six years, said she received an eviction notice from BJB Realty on July 31, the day the eviction moratorium expired. Before the eviction, she and seven other tenants had spoken out against proposed rent increases and formed a tenants’ union. The rest of those tenants also received eviction notices on July 31.
“When you pay your rent and you’re a good tenant, why do you have to worry about housing being taken out from under you?” Westberry said recently.
Her original rate of $950 a month was supposed to be increased to $1,195, but HSO was able to intervene. Westberry said it was another tenant who spearheaded the process, but it “didn’t take long at all” for HSO to correct it – less than a month.
What the office couldn’t do was help with the evictions. HSO and the Rent Board can only operate within the jurisdiction of the ordinance, meaning there’s nothing they can do until a new tenant moves into her unit.
Westberry was told the tenants could block BJB from increasing the rate more than 5 percent for the new tenant when there is a turnover – but it becomes that tenant’s responsibility to report it before the correction could occur.
Westberry hired a lawyer but said BJB was unwilling to compromise even though she offered to pay more and sign a lease. Going to court got Westberry an extension on the eviction, which was originally the end of September.
“Now,” she said, “my house key is a hotel card.” She and her husband have been unable to find affordable housing in Portland despite the extension.
Another BJB resident on Washburn Avenue, Emily Manter, said her unit was leased to her at $1,200 a month – a 60 percent increase from the previous tenant’s rate of $750.
Manter said that other long-term residents fought similar increases and got them reversed, so she did the same. If she hadn’t, she’d still be paying an illegally raised rate of $1,200 a month. The same goes for any Portland tenant who doesn’t bring their rent increases to the attention of the Rent Board or the HSO.
The process paves the way for landlords to avoid the ordinance and overcharge tenants until they’re called out. It also means tenants are on their own to ensure landlords are adhering to the rules.
Manter’s lease expires in January, and she said she’s worried she will be evicted too since she’s asked BJB to follow the ordinance and reverse past rent increases.
Officials at BJB Realty were contacted by email and declined to be interviewed.
‘We’re trying to understand the ordinance’
Portland landlord Randi Bollenbach said she doesn’t know any landlords who have resorted to no-cause evictions to increase rent on a turnover. She said she couldn’t see how that would be a good strategy for a landlord.
“I avoid evictions like the plague,” Bollenbach said. “That wouldn’t help me.”
Austin Sims, chair of the Rent Board, said these evictions were always going to be a concern because of the way the rent control ordinance is constructed. He said it’s a balancing act because landlords need a rate of return, which is why they are allowed to raise the rent for new tenants, but the 5 percent figure is designed to be low enough to not incentivize evictions.
In an Oct. 27 Rent Board meeting, Tom Watson, a co-owner of Port Property Management, requested rent increases for buildings at 18 and 37 Casco St.
During the discussion, he presented documents that showed several units at 18 Casco had seven percent rent increases at turnover. Watson said he thought landlords were allowed to increase the rate by 7 percent (his understanding was 5 percent plus an additional 2 percent from the Consumer Price Index) and he was under the impression that PPM had followed all the rules.
The rent control ordinance landlord FAQ document states that landlords can’t incorporate an annual increase based on CPI until Jan. 1.
Watson said in the meeting that Anne Torregrosa, associate corporation counsel for the city, made it clear to him two months ago that 5 percent was the limit on rent increases at turnover. At that point, he said, PPM went back and credited tenants the 2 percent they were overcharged.
“We made a mistake. Like everybody else, we’re trying to understand the ordinance,” Watson said during the meeting. He suggested that data still showing increases over 5 percent could be a technology issue that has not been updated, or the rates could have been posted incorrectly.
PPM officials did not respond to several requests for additional comment.
Bollenbach said she thought Watson’s thought process was correct, and that she understood his confusion.
She said she listens to Rent Board meetings to try and understand the ordinance better, but it’s still unclear, and there are lots of confused landlords.
But even if landlords are making these errors unintentionally, they can be responsible for overcharging tenants. And if tenants don’t know or understand the rules, then there’s no stopping the cycle of violations.
What’s an ‘allowable increase?’
Matt Walker, a tenant at 655 Congress St., said he and his neighbors received letters on Aug. 17 from landlord Geoffrey Rice providing a 75-day notice of rent increases set to take place on Jan. 1, 2022, “based on allowable increases.” Per the Rent Control Ordinance, that amount would be at most 10 percent more than the current rent for each apartment.
Another tenant at 665 Congress, Wes Pelletier, said before the August notice, Rice said rents would be raised in November. Regular rent increases aren’t allowed under the ordinance until January, so they were able to work with the HSO to have those increases repealed. Pelletier said this only applied to 665 Congress, not to tenants in Rice’s other buildings who were also informed of similar increases for November.
That could mean tenants in those buildings could have had their rents increased illegally in November. If they haven’t reached out to the HSO or the Rent Board, or they’re not aware of any alleged violations, those increases could still be in place.
“It’s absolutely unacceptable that it takes this much effort to try and get our landlord to follow the law,” Pelletier said.
Tenants and landlords with concerns for the Rent Board are supposed to reach out with complaints via email, which is monitored by HSO.
Issues are then interpreted at Rent Board meetings, which take place on the fourth Wednesday of every month. Sims, the Rent Board chair, said holding meetings only monthly hasn’t hindered the Rent Board and board members have been flexible about conducting meetings long enough to ensure all business is handled.
City Hall’s Grondin said HSO feels the fairly new Rent Board process has “gone very smoothly” so far, especially since HSO and the Rent Board have to operate within the ordinance’s limitations.
But she also said HSO staff has been researching and working on solutions to bring before the Rent Board and City Council to address “unintended consequences” of the ordinance, including the issue of no-cause evictions.
She said she’s unsure how or when the Rent Board and council will respond.
Portland’s rent control process at a glance
Confusion and unfamiliarity with Portland’s rent control ordinance remain almost a year after it took effect. Here’s what tenants and landlords need to know.
The ordinance was approved by 57 percent of voters in the November 2020 election. It provides several protections to tenants.
Landlords are required to notify tenants 75 days in advance of rent increases. It also puts limits on when landlords can raise rents, allowing increases only once a year capped at 10 percent. When new tenants move in, landlords can again increase the rent, but only 5 percent.
Experience has shown that landlords who are unaware of the rules can still raise rents more than allowable and such increases will remain in place unless tenants know how to bring the violation to the attention of the Rent Board or the Housing Safety Office.
The Rent Board is a panel of landlords and tenants appointed by the city that meets every fourth Wednesday of the month to respond to tenant complaints and mediate disputes. The board is also responsible for evaluating landlords’ requests for rent increases that exceed the limits of the ordinance.
After the Rent Board has deliberated and come to conclusions on disputes, it is the HSO’s responsibility to follow up and enforce the decisions. HSO also receives complaints about potential violations.
The system has reversed rent increases that violated the ordinance but depends on the assumptions that landlords follow all the guidelines and that tenants will complain if they don’t.
HSO has a FAQ online and requires landlords to post documentation in common areas of their properties to ensure that tenants have easy access to the regulations and their rights.
Another aid to tenants was unanimously adopted by the Rent Board in October: a Rent Increase History Request Form that provides an easy way to check previous rents and to help determine if the current rent is in violation or not.
Tenants, however, still need to inform themselves and are responsible for bringing their findings to the board and going through that process before a rent complaint is verified.
The Rent Board won’t meet on Wednesday, Nov. 24, due to Thanksgiving the following day, but will meet twice next month on Dec. 1 and Dec. 22.
— Evan Edmonds