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Landlord and tenant advocates brace for a brawl in Salem


Rent control, no-cause evictions and enforcement of state laws for manufactured home parks are on the table

JAIME VALDEZ - Rita Loberger, who lives in Eldorado Villas, intends to keep fighting for tenants' rights as she observes landlords making more demands on them.As Portland's affordable housing crisis deepens and spreads, there are growing calls for laws to allow rent control, prevent tenants from being evicted for no stated cause, and protect residents in mobile home and manufactured home parks.

But just as landlord-tenant disputes reached fever pitch in Oregon, two longstanding statewide coalitions formed to vet landlord-tenant bills and strike compromises have fallen apart.

That's going to make it harder to forge majority support for landlord-tenant bills in the 2017 legislative session.

"It looks like we're headed back to the landlord-tenant wars, and I think that's not a healthy thing for both sides," said Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Canby.

The two coalitions — one for apartments and one for mobile home/manufactured home parks — recently fell apart after landlords flatly refused to talk about rent control, no-cause evictions and enforcement of state laws for manufactured home parks. Stymied by the inability to discuss their biggest concerns, tenant representatives walked out of both groups.

Both blowups came after landlords insisted they get to appoint a co-chair for each coalition — Portland lobbyist John DiLorenzo — who could veto any agenda item. Both coalitions have long been moderated by John VanLandingham, a Eugene Legal Aid attorney who is sympathetic to tenants but strives to get consensus from both sides.

In a related development, DiLorenzo in recent months has been helping landlords boost their political clout by raising unprecedented sums for their Equitable Housing Political Action Committee. The PAC recently doled out more than $250,000 to legislative candidates, plus three Portland city commissioners.

DiLorenzo is saying, "I'm the new king here. You've got to go through me," while VanLandingham says, "My experience with Mr. DiLorenzo is that he has no intention of working collaboratively to address resident and landlord concerns."

DiLorenzo added, "I think it is an issue of control. The landlords are asking him to share that authority."

Formula for compromise

In 1995, when then-Sen. Kennemer was chairing the Business and Labor Committee, he told manufactured home park owners and tenants to stop bringing competing bills to the Legislature, because it was hard for lawmakers to pick sides. Kennemer told the bickering parties to work together on a common agenda before bringing bills to Salem.

They formed the Manufactured Housing Landlord/Tenant Coalition.

Nearly every session since then, the coalition submitted a bill to the Legislature, and many of them passed into law. "I think that's an extraordinary achievement," Kennemer says.

That coalition was modeled after the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition, which after starting in the early-1980s brought together apartment owners and tenants. That group also brought consensus bills to the Legislature most sessions.

As facilitator of the two coalitions, VanLandingham says he helped set meeting agendas, led meetings, drafted bills and then explained them to lawmakers. He often wrote bills in tandem with Phil Querin, a lawyer for the landlords. Both factions had to sign off before bills advanced to Salem.

Landlords grow more assertive

In June, apartment landlords demanded to appoint a co-chair for the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition and named DiLorenzo in August. A prominent business attorney and lobbyist, DiLorenzo also owns about 190 apartment units in downtown Portland.

Landlords grew worried, DiLorenzo says, after House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, recently vowed to pursue a bill in the next session to legalize rent control in cities that want to adopt it, which is now barred by state law.

On Oct. 10, two manufactured housing landlord groups said they too wanted to pick a co-chair to serve alongside VanLandingham in the other coalition. They also named DiLorenzo.

"After 20 years, maybe it's time we have a co-chair who is sensitive to the needs of landlords," says Chuck Carpenter, executive director of Manufactured Housing Communities of Oregon.

Coalitions break up

For apartment tenants in the General Landlord/Tenant Coalition, the top priority for the 2017 session is a bill banning no-cause tenant evictions.

After DiLorenzo was named co-chair, "he would not agree to meet unless we promised in advance not to talk about good-cause evictions," VanLandingham says. "It's the only issue we wanted to negotiate."

DiLorenzo doesn't dispute that but says he was willing to negotiate other matters. "I said as the co-chair, I'm going to exercise my prerogative not to talk about that, and he proceeded to blow up the coalition.

"The landlords are not interested in compromising on the only item John wants to talk about — no-cause evictions," DiLorenzo says.

DiLorenzo cites two reasons landlords won't give up no-cause evictions. Sometimes investors buy apartments at a higher price than current rents justify, he says, and need to clear units to make major upgrades and fetch higher rents. Landlords also need to protect their tenants, such as when a neighbor plays drums too loudly at night.

If landlords are forced to defend such evictions in court, DiLorenzo says, it unduly delays the process, and landlords have to prove their case, often without the help of tenants afraid to testify against their neighbors.

DiLorenzo says if the Legislature allows cities like Portland to enact rent control, as practiced in other big cities, it often freezes rents on some units while putting more pressure to raise rents in remaining units not subject to limits.

"If rents were too high, we would have large vacancy numbers," DiLorenzo reasons. "We don't."

The problem is lack of supply, he says, so tenants should work with landlords to achieve that.

Conditions differ for manufactured home parks

Tenants in mobile home/manufactured home parks have more rights, because they own their properties. But many chafe at steady rent increases for the land underneath their units.

Nevertheless, VanLandingham says he made it clear he wouldn't support a rent-control bill for the parks, though he wanted to keep talking about other ways to assure affordability for tenants, who can be priced out of their own homes if rents spike. But the bigger issue, he says, is the lack of enforcement of state laws that the coalition helped enact.

Oregon has no state agency to enforce its manufactured/mobile home laws, requiring tenants to file suits. That's costly for low-income tenants, and most are reluctant to sue their landlords and risk eviction.

The coalition had been discussing Washington's system, where residents file claims directly with the Attorney General's office.

Manufactured park landlords recently told VanLandingham they'd no longer discuss enforcement or rent affordability issues in the coalition.

"Those two issues we don't want to talk about," says Carpenter, the trade group leader. "We see enforcement as something like with the Attorney General's office. Everything else we're happy to talk about."

He says the coalition has always proceeded only when both sides agree and doesn't see the big picture.

But VanLandingham sensed a change in the industry's stance. "The coalition has never said we won't talk about something," he says. "DiLorenzo comes in, (and) suddenly they're not. His goal is to make sure there's no pro-tenant legislation."