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Our Opinion: Fix housing bill while there's time

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Lifting the ban on rent control could lead to a checkerboard of regulations, as each city makes its own decisions about whether and how to limit rent increases. If Portland adopts strict rent controls - a definite possibility - that could push apartment development into nearby suburbs.

The downside of Oregon's one-party rule was evident this week when Pamplin Media Group's editorial board met with friends and foes of a proposal to strengthen renters' rights.

For more than 90 minutes, we heard a spirited but respectful back-and-forth as proponents and opponents of House Bill 2004 debated the legislation, which would make it harder for landlords to evict tenants without cause and permit local governments to implement rent control.

This bill attempts to deal with very real problems facing Oregon renters, but it fails to address adequately the very real concerns of developers and landlords.

The good news is there's still time to fix the bill's flaws — in fact, it's a necessity. House Bill 2004 passed the Democratic-dominated House on April 4 without a single Republican vote and with a couple of Democratic defections. It moves to the Senate, where Democrats hold a 17-13 majority, but at least two of their members, Rod Monroe and Betsy Johnson, will be tough sells.

With demand for rental housing outstripping supply, some landlords are jacking up rents or evicting tenants for no other reason than to make larger profits, adding to the state's affordable housing crisis. There also is evidence that a few landlords have used no-cause evictions to illegally discriminate against tenants due to cultural or other factors.

House Bill 2004 would ban no-cause evictions after a tenant has been in a unit for six months. It would still allow landlords to evict tenants for a variety of for-cause reasons, including failure to pay rent, criminal activity and lease violations.

It also would lift the statewide ban on local governments implementing rent control measures.

Critics say landlords worried about being stuck with problem tenants might not rent to individuals with checkered pasts, and they might build in higher rent increases to pay for penalties imposed for kicking out tenants without showing cause.

Plus, allowing cities to impose limits on rent increases could prompt a flurry of rent spikes before the law takes effect and discourage developers from building much-needed apartments.

Proponents counter that they have addressed those concerns — and to some extent they have.

The bill originally would have forced landlords using no-cause evictions to pay tenants the equivalent of three months' rent. That's been dropped to one month's rent. The bill now exempts landlords who own fewer than five units from having to pay relocation fees. It also includes concessions to landlords who intend to remodel or sell a property. And, the bill was changed to allow any new rental units to be free from rent control for the first five years they are on the market.

That's a start, but it's not enough.

Lifting the ban on rent control could lead to a checkerboard of regulations, as each city makes its own decisions about whether and how to limit rent increases. If Portland adopts strict rent controls — a definite possibility — that could push apartment development into nearby suburbs.

A telling moment came at the end of our conversation, when a proponent of the bill turned to the two opponents — a rental property manager and a developer — and said it was nice to finally meet them.

Talking — and listening — to landlords who disagree with their proposal will make for better policy. The best and most enduring laws in Oregon are those that are carefully crafted with all parties' interests in mind. House Bill 2004 doesn't meet that standard, yet, but with some additional work — and compromise — it could.