Portland Mayor Could Support 'Flawed' Rental Screening Ordinance

5 hours ago
Originally published on June 12, 2019 4:05 pm

In an interview with OPB last week, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said an ordinance that changes landlords' screening process, deposits and fees for prospective tenants is flawed and overly prescriptive — but added he hopes to get to a yes vote on it.

The City Council voted Wednesday on a package of amendments Wheeler has said were necessary before he would consider supporting the ordinance. All but one passed.

The mayor’s amendments include a number of small concessions to landlords:

People who rent out part of a duplex or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on a property they live on would be exempt from the policy.

Landlords could reject tenants with a recent history of rental agreement violations.

The exemption for duplexes and ADUs passed in a narrow 3-2 vote. Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said they will ask the Housing Bureau to craft a narrower version of the exemption for the Council to consider at a later date.

The limits on landlords would address a broad range of practices Eudaly argues lead to discrimination in the rental market.

It requires landlords use a first come, first served system to process rental applications, prioritizes accessible units for people with disabilities, and caps the income-to-rent ratio landlords can require of tenants.

Wheeler, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, said he supports the goal of reducing the discretion landlords have in the application process to combat housing discrimination. However, he said he was concerned that without his amendments, the policy was vulnerable to a legal challenge from landlords who have lobbied against it.

“In those details are all kinds of tripwires that raise questions about whether this policy is legal, whether it can be implemented by landlords in terms of administrative feasibility,” he said.

Eudaly’s office spent more than a year developing the policy with fair housing and tenants' rights advocates and then reworked it in April and May after an initially critical reception from the City Council.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Nick Fish praised Eudaly for her collaborative approach and signaled his support for the policy.

Eudaly said she will bring the policy back to Council for a vote June 19, without further delay, an indication she is relatively confident the mayor will also vote yes.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty — Eudaly’s key ally on the ordinance — will be absent June 19 and indicated she may not be available to vote by phone that day. Commissioner Amanda Fritz has not been publicly supportive of the policy.

While signaling his apparent support for adopting the policy, Wheeler has been a vocal critic of it.

In his conversation with OPB, he questioned a core component of the policy: a standard set of relatively permissive criteria landlords would be encouraged to use to screen prospective tenants.

Landlords using those city-approved criteria wouldn’t turn away tenants for felony convictions more than seven years old, or misdemeanors more than three years back.

“There’s no exemptions for homicide, sexual assault, for child sex abuse, for arson,” he noted, echoing a point that representatives of Multifamily Northwest, the lobbying organization for landlords, have made repeatedly in their public testimony.

Landlords are not required to use the low-barrier criteria, but those who apply more stringent standards would have to give tenants a reason for their denial and an opportunity to appeal.

Wheeler said he fears most landlords will opt out of the low-barrier approach.

“In effect, if landlords don’t feel the low-barrier approach is a feasible or realistic path for them to go, it undercuts the entire purpose of the proposal,” he said.

He also raised questions about the research Eudaly’s office has cited as a reason to set the look-back period for felonies at seven years.

But the mayor said he will not attempt any further revision of the policy before the Council votes on it, saying he wishes to avoid sloppily worded amendments.

City Hall staff have grumbled in recent months that Wheeler is not adequately staffed to keep him well briefed on complex policy issues, and he had to withdraw one amendment to Eudaly’s ordinance after it became clear it did not do what he intended.

Instead, Wheeler said he will direct the Housing Bureau to conduct its own review of research on recidivism rates and include that information in a future report to the Council on the impact of the ordinance.

“I think it’s important that this information come back to the Council and be thoroughly vetted,” he said.

Eudaly’s office has said that research generally shows most individuals who reoffend do so soon after their release, and the longer time passes since a crime occurred, the less likely a person is to reoffend.

Eudaly acknowledged that one key study her staff relied on — a Minneapolis report that looked at whether a person’s criminal background affected their likelihood of remaining in stable housing — did not include arson and major sex crimes.

“The study did not include arson and major sex crimes because individuals with these types of convictions are almost universally excluded from all rental housing,” said Margaux Weeke, Eudaly’s spokeswoman. “We would encourage the mayor's office not to consider a lack of research to be a presumption of a negative outcome.”

Eudaly’s office also noted that the ordinance would have no effect on the conditions of a person’s release from incarceration, which can exclude individuals from living in or near certain areas.

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