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Fed-up Portland renters assemble to strike back

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Portlanders form group to address rising housing costs


TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kari Koch, a Portland activist,  tells citizens how she helped people fight foreclosures at the Renters Assembly at Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland.Joe Clement had been renting a room in a large home in Sellwood for two years.

The 28-year-old gardened, did his own repairs, and took care of the house with his fellow renters in between volunteering at KBOO and working for the Multnomah County Central Library.

“A lot of our time, energy and emotion went into that house,” Clement says.

One day in May 2013, he was notified that the home would be sold to a developer who planned to raze it and split the lot in four.

When Clement received his 60-day, no-cause eviction notice, he tried to challenge it.

He wrote letters to the city and went to neighborhood association meetings, but to no avail. “The common reaction: ‘Well, you’re just a renter, and that’s the way it goes,’” Clement says. “That was very traumatic, feeling like you didn’t deserve to live where you live — you were just a renter.”

A year later, Clement attended the first meeting of the Portland Renters’ Assembly, a group that formed in February to air grievances about issues such as rapidly rising rents, a lack of rent control, no-cause evictions, and an influx of new developments that are tearing down old rental homes.

Online real estate company Zillow released a study in January that said Portland had the fifth-largest annual change in rent of the 35 largest metro areas in the country.

Portland’s rent increased 7.2 percent, compared to 3.3 percent nationally. As of May, Zillow lists the average rent in the Portland area at $1,629 per month.

In Clement’s ideal world, rent would not be “something that goes to private persons’ profit,” he says. He wishes rent were “a function of how we provide housing rather than a business opportunity that someone gets to profit off of.”

He and others in the Renters’ Assembly see the forum as a way to discuss what they call the “burden of rent,” and look for solutions.

Since February the group has held seven “public assemblies” at libraries, parks and gathering places around town. Two more are planned for August.

The July assembly

On a recent Wednesday evening, a crowd of about 50 people gathered at the Portland Renters’ Assembly meeting at Colonel Summers Park in Southeast Portland.

They were Portland State University students, San Francisco transplants, and senior citizens who have lived in Portland their entire lives.

After an introduction by Clement, they heard from three speakers, including Kari Koch, a Portland activist who helped people fight evictions and organize during the foreclosure crisis. She says most of her success was not a result of the legal system, but “a direct result of community pressure.”

They also heard from Toby Green, a volunteer activist with “Fight for $15,” a movement of fast-food workers fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Green talked about the intersection of low wages and housing justice. Green also spoke about the group’s efforts to put a $15 minimum wage initiative on the ballot in November 2016.

Representatitves from the Portland Solidarity Network spoke about helping to organize a tenants’ union, giving renters the power to strike and make it more difficult and expensive for landlords to evict people.

Some of the attendees were looking for solutions within the political system, like lobbying lawmakers to get rid of Oregon’s ban on rent control and to give renters attempting to organize protections from landlords.

Others wanted solutions that are more radical, citing their feelings of disillusionment. Many brought up the idea of a renters’ strike, which was most prominently used by tenants nationwide in the early 1970s.

Future of the Assembly

Tori Abernathy, a local artist who founded the Portland Renters Assembly, says she hopes the group can build a movement to help renters feel less alienated.

She would like to make it a tenants’ union, but doesn’t want to force her agenda. “I want it to happen naturally,” she says. “I want them to radicalize through conversation.”

Clement believes the assembly is helping to “agitate, educate and inoculate” its members, similar to the rallying cry in the Industrial Workers of the World’s organizing slogan: agitate, educate, innoculate, organize and unionize (AEIOU).

“Doing the work of agitating, educating and inoculating is enough right now,” Clement says. “Further work will be done by more people.”

While they don’t want to create a movement by themselves, Clement and Abernathy both have ideas that are arousing support.

“I think we should stop talking about rent as a business and start talking about housing as a human right,” Clement told the crowd at Colonel Summers Park, prompting the loudest applause of the night.

Abernathy doesn’t blame landlords for the position they’re in. She just wishes the reality were different.

“I’m not saying that all landlords are evil,” she says. “I’m just saying maybe the figure of the landlord shouldn’t exist.”

As the assemblies move forward, Abernathy hopes they’ll take on direct action that will bring better conditions for all renters.

“The reason there is not more talk about housing justice is because these people feel alienated,” she says. “These assemblies are really a way for people to be focused on their collective consciousness. With that, we can maybe enact some real change.”


NEXT ASSEMBLY

When: Aug. 26 5:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m.

Where: Midland Library 805 SE 122nd Ave Portland, Oregon

What: The next Portland Renters' Assembly, where a rally or march may be planned for later in the month.

RENTERS GATHER

When: Planning meetings are held at 5 p.m. Sundays

Where: KBOO Radio Station, 20 S.E. Eighth Ave.

More info: Their website

UPDATE 7/28: This story has been amended to correct the name of a group mentioned to the Portland Solidarity Network, and has added the details of the next Renters' Assembly.