Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
The bad economy has complicated relations between renters and landlords in Portland.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
The bad economy has complicated relations between renters and landlords in Portland.
It was a cool spring when the furnace at Dung Ho's Southeast Portland apartment stopped working. The 26-year-old phoned the landlord repeatedly, but got no response. Just to make the temperature bearable in one room, she found a small space heater, which consumed large amounts of electricity for which she would have to pay.

Ho felt helpless. If she notified city authorities, would the landlord retaliate and evict her? Would the rent go up?

Ho turned to the Internet and found the Community Alliance of Tenants, a Portland-based coalition of renters who stand up for one another and get educated on tenant rights. She called a hotline and learned her options. She decided to document the problems on video and then move, getting her deposit back.

"It got me thinking that so many other people are dealing with these issues and they don't know what their rights are," says Ho. "If I had had more knowledge, I would have felt more empowered."

Now, two years later, Ho works for the Community Alliance of Tenants. Along with dozens of others, she's been trained in tenant-landlord law and is able to help troubled renters — many who are frightened of retaliation. Problems include discrimination, overcrowding, rats, mold and even furnaces on the fritz. The hotline gets more than 50 calls per day.

Volume increased as the economy slid. Those suffering are predominantly low-wage workers, families with children, people living with disabilities, seniors and people of color.  

"As more and more people become low income, the problem of safe, affordable and stable housing becomes magnifed," says Ari Rapkin, co-director of the alliance.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been a longtime supporter of the Community Alliance of Tenants, giving the group 10 grants since it began in 1996.

The alliance's board is made up of low-income renters who make decisions on how to address problems like a shortage of housing, high rents, unresponsive landlords and unjust evictions.  

Michelle Lasley, a member of Holy Cross Parish in North Portland, is secretary of the alliance's board.

"Everyone can benefit from a steady home, a roof over their heads, for the physical, psychological, and social security it provides," says Lasley, who works for the environmental group SOLV. The alliance helped her find the right resources, learn the law and get some social support from peers.

Lasley gained inner fire for the cause when she was taking temporary jobs and worked briefly for a landlord she calls "unethical."  

Lasley's work with the alliance fits into her Catholic beliefs.

"I have always embraced the stewardship portion of our faith," she says. "I believe it is a core part to give back, lead by example, and show people that we can do things together."

Lasley, Rapkin and others fear that good affordable housing will be even harder to find in Oregon as foreclosures send more people into the rental market. Demand is driving up rent and tenants are forced to pay 50, 60 or even 70 percent of their income on housing. About 30 percent is considered viable.

"Low income tenants bear the brunt of the housing crisis," Rapkin says. "People should not have to choose between housing, groceries and medicine."

The Community Alliance of Tenants, in addition to giving advice on renter rights in English and Spanish, advocates for government funding to develop more low-cost housing. Members also lobby for laws to help their population.

In the last Oregon Legislature, a bill promoted by the alliance passed and gave tenants more time after eviction notices. Leaders say this year's Legislature does not seem amenable to more reform, despite what Rapkin sees as urgent need for better tenant protection.  

"In Portland, landlords need little reason to evict people," he says. "You can simply ask for repairs and get evicted. It creates a lot of fear."

As in any relationship with tension, the responsibility for tenant-landlord conflict does not lie on just one side.

"There are challenges for landlords. They're attempting to provide somebody's home and they take that very seriously," says Deborah Imse, executive director of the Metro Multifamily Housing Association, which educates and represents landlords in the Portland area.

The association, which has 600 members, lobbies for laws that allow landlords to provide good housing, but still make a profit.  

Imse argues that the economic dip and the housing crisis put downward pressure on rents in some places, with tenants doubling up or moving in with parents. Landlords responded by lowering rent.

"But the bank is probably not lowering your mortgage," she says.

Imse reports that landlords face expensive challenges when renters act irresponsibly, or even dangerously. It costs landlords tens of thousands of dollars to clean up meth labs, for example.

"You have bad actors on both tenant and landlord sides," says Imse, who fights against the cost of regulations that she says nickle and dime landlords out of business. She cites a required training on lead paint cleanup for workers that costs $165 per worker, even if the patch of lead paint is no bigger than a sheet of paper.

Tenant groups and landlord associations actually work together before each Oregon Legislature to see what bills might be possible and beneficial. The meetings can be tense, but they keep both sides talking.

One thing both landlords and tenants see coming down the pike is a shortage of apartments in the Portland area. Building slowed to a crawl during the recession.