Beyond Portland: The forgotten survivors of Oregon's rental crisis

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Earlier this year, tenants from across Oregon converged on Salem to tell their stories.  Many of them had faced unjust evictions, nearly all had seen drastic rent increases, and stories were told of a myriad of other forms of mistreatment and abuse by landlords. Tenants fought to encourage lawmakers to pass House Bill 2004, a bill that would have lifted Oregon's statewide ban on rent control and required landlords to give just cause before evicting their tenants.

Currently in Oregon, tenants can be evicted without cause given a minimum notice of only 30 days within the first year of tenancy and 60 days thereafter.

HB 2004 passed the Oregon House of Representatives with strong leadership from Speaker Kotek, but was gridlocked in the State Senate. After many amendments which weakened tenant protections, and even discarded the legalization of rent control laws at the local level, tenants across the state delivered eviction notices to their Senators demanding a vote.

In the final days of the 2017 Legislative Session, the bill died on the desk of Senate President Peter Courtney, who wanted to save face with his landlord colleagues and fellow Democratic Party members by refusing to call it to the floor for a vote.

Although the embittered battle to gain only a few basic protections through a watered-down bill still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many tenant leaders today, there was a moment of deep hope and statewide unity early in the struggle.

The bill, which had initially been touted by opponents and allies alike as "impossible to pass", had gained widespread traction and the support of unlikely allies in Oregon's legislative bodies.

Tenants in Medford, Grants Pass, Phoenix, Talent and Ashland raised their voices in Salem. As we drove back to Southern Oregon from the HB 2004 Lobby Day, we were all in high spirits.

One of the great moments of the hearing was when a small landlord from Portland got up to testify against the bill. He told the leaders of the House Committee on Housing and Human Services that he had come to say that he was opposed to the state passing statewide legislation to address Portland's problems, but after listening to the struggles of tenants across the state, he no longer knew where he stood on the bill.

His words were exemplary of a larger misperception by Portland elites: that the rental crisis is exclusively a problem of their city and therefore is not a statewide issue. Rural folk — which is how the Portland elite perceive the rest of Oregon — have it easy, they have assumed.

Those living in Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Coos, Klamath, Lane and other counties throughout the state tell a different story.

Laura (we changed her name to protect her privacy) moved from California to Medford ten years ago to be with her fiancé. At the time, things looked good for her. When they married, both Laura and her husband were working family-wage jobs, which allowed them to comfortably pay their rent and live without too heavy of a financial burden.

They were in love, middle-aged, financially prepared for the future, and integrated into a community that Laura loved and felt at home in.

However, it was not long before a spiral of domestic abuse left Laura struggling for answers. After one confrontation in which the police were called, Laura's husband came home. He claimed he was reprimanded at work and that if she ever called the cops again, he would lose his job.

Laura was stuck.  She couldn't get the help of the police for fear of economic repercussions. The abuse continued for ten years— until one day, she made a decision to seek help.

She sought the support of a counselor and ended the marriage. As the divorce proceedings began, things looked as though they might turn out for the better for Laura. She was still working part-time and was able to afford to continue to pay her $800/month rent, but her belief that there would be some support from her family and the community was proven wrong.

"It was hard.  When you're leaving an abusive relationship you think there has to be some support there," Laura said, "but it turns out that while people will realize that he is bad news and want to stay away from him, they also start wanting to stay away from you, you know? You're too close and they just want to get the hell away from all of it."

When her landlord got word of her divorce, her situation deteriorated.

The landlord communicated via email that Laura's rent was going up $400 dollars — to $1,200 per month. He expressed his concern over her ability to pay her rent as a single woman and told her that she would have 30 days to vacate (despite the law giving her 60 days).

When Laura explained that he could not kick her out into the street over her divorce, he conceded, and demanded six months of rent payments - cash in advance. Laura fought back, and the landlord backed down, only to follow up a year later with another rent increase of $300 dollars.

Her apartment had gone from $800 to $1,500 per month in a year due to her marriage status — and while the law technically protected her from discrimination, a lack of legal capacity in the region meant Laura did not receive the help she desperately needed at the time.

She was told by the nonprofit lawyers in the valley that there was not enough funding for them to take on the case.

Not long after the second rent increase, Laura lost her home.

She still had income and enough money to rent a reasonably priced home but finding that home proved difficult. Before she could move out of her car and back into a stable home, she got pneumonia and lost her job. After trying to pull herself up out of poverty, and experiencing months of chaotic turmoil, at the age of 50 years old, she became homeless for the first time in her life.

The little help she did receive proved temporary and felt disingenuous to her. When we met her, she had no support network.

Laura's story is becoming very familiar to tenants in Southern Oregon and her experience is shared by hundreds of working women across rural Oregon.

In Jackson County, half of all renters are housing insecure, and one third of all renters pay more than 50% of their income towards rent. Thousands of working people in rural communities fall from stable employment in the American middle-class into homelessness every year.

Every one of their stories is unique, but many working women are like Laura. Those who have experienced domestic abuse also often face mistreatment by misogynistic landlords that take advantage of a lack of effective legal representation for tenants.

"It's hard when you don't have a consistent place to shower, tidy up, or change clothes.  Knowing that people can tell you're homeless just by looking at you." Laura told us.

When Senate President Peter Courtney refused to bring HB 2004 to the floor for a vote, was he thinking of people like Laura, or was he thinking of his slumlord colleagues in the State Senate who refused to vote against their own economic interest?

Rural tenants have been left behind, ignored, or worse, dismissed as not even being affected by the rental crisis.

Under the crushing political logic of Salem, tenants in areas like Jackson County, not to mention places like Douglas and Coos Counties, are seen as not being "politically advantageous" by the Democratic Party and liberal elites in Portland.

That is another way of saying, in simple terms, that the lives of tenants outside of Portland are worth less than the lives of urban tenants.

We reject their strategy of marginalization. We reject their defense of economic segregation, and embrace solidarity with all tenants who are mistreated and demand their rights, rural and urban, in the state of Oregon — but our allies in Portland must come to understand that they are not alone. We are in this struggle together, and we must be united in that struggle.

There are few places that have felt the rental crisis with more extremity than Jackson County.  Last year, a report from governing.com concluded that the housing burden in Medford is rising faster than any other metro-area in the country, including San Francisco.  

According to The Oregon Housing Alliance, 2 children per classroom in Jackson County experienced homelessness last year, and those numbers are rising.

This situation is unacceptable. Counties across Southern Oregon are consistently left out of the statewide conversation on housing and tenant protections, despite becoming a center of the statewide crisis.

We demand recognition of the grievances of tenants in rural Oregon. We demand the enforcement of our rights as tenants and workers, and we declare any Representative or Senator who opposes, actively or by inaction, the equal treatment under the law, which our constituents deserve, to be our enemies and the target of our passion, our organization, and our fury.

Like so many other systemically underserved people, survivors of domestic abuse outside of the major metro centers are finding themselves underserved and unsupported.

We have a mental health crisis in Oregon, and this crisis is exacerbated by both a lack of mental health services in rural communities, and a rental crisis which places more and more families in a situation of permanent housing instability.

We reject the abandonment with which the urban elite have treated our communities. Throughout Southern Oregon and across the rest of the state, we fight for all tenants and stand in solidarity with working class people.

We are Picketing CPM!