Portland’s tenant screening proposal heightens renters’ risk of eviction

Posted By: Deborah Imse (deleted)

By Guest Columnist Deborah Imse. She is executive director of Multifamily NW, a statewide association representing landlords and property managers.

During a May 29 hearing on Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s proposed changes to tenant screening procedures, I testified before the Portland City Council:

“When someone moves into housing they do not have the income to support, they are far, far more likely to fail to make rent payments and ultimately be evicted. We see this frequently even for tenants who earn more than three times the monthly rent. By eliminating that basic protection, you are ensuring that more vulnerable Portlanders will enter into housing contracts they cannot afford, that more Portlanders will be evicted, and that those same exact Portlanders will then have a much harder time securing housing as a result of a for-cause eviction. This chain of events will logically lead to more housing instability; and ultimately, homelessness.”

I was surprised that Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty responded by questioning the premise that rent-burdened tenants are more likely to fall behind on payments, face eviction and ultimately experience more housing instability. Her comments were described by her supporters on social media as a “takedown,” and the audio clip played well as a political soundbite on Oregon Public Broadcasting. She even tweeted about me after the hearing.

Far be it from me to question Hardesty’s well-hewn political skills, which were on full display the night of the hearing. But with a housing crisis going on outside city hall’s chambers, Portland doesn’t have time for politics. It’s time for the City Council to make wise decisions, even when they’re politically inconvenient. Portland families are depending on them to get this right.

If Hardesty is truly interested in making good policy, she could start by reviewing some of the many empirical studies showing that rent-burdened households face higher eviction rates and housing instability, particularly when their share of gross income devoted to rent exceeds 30 percent (Eudaly’s proposal sets the threshold at a whopping 50 percent). They could look at the strong correlation between eviction and homelessness and decide that Portland doesn’t need more of either:

An April 2018 report by Pew Charitable Trusts found that “rent-burdened households have higher eviction rates, increased financial fragility, and wider use of social safety net programs, compared with other renters and homeowners.”

A December 2018 Zillow Economic Research article states that “it has long been a real estate rule of thumb that a person’s housing costs should not exceed roughly 30 percent of their income, and this research finds empirical evidence to support that adage at the community level. When the share of average income spent on rent in a community begins to meaningfully exceed that line, the risk of housing insecurity and/or homelessness rapidly increases.”

Anti-poverty group Community Service Society New York notes in a September 2018 piece that “rent burdens, when a renter household pays more than half of their income toward rent, are a top predictor of an eviction.”

Multifamily NW will continue to be a willing partner to help the city find solutions to make renting more affordable, more accessible and protect all Portlanders from discrimination. But we cannot support a proposal specifically intended to allow for more rent-burdened households. It will hurt the very people it purports to help. Perhaps that is why no other city in the country that we can find has ever been foolish enough to enact a similar policy. And if city leaders were to look a little closer at the research, they would realize that Eudaly is asking them to vote for an ordinance that will make our homelessness problem worse.

If Portland wants to make renting more affordable and accessible, it should establish policies that will create more supply in the market. If Portland wants to protect against discrimination, it should fund enforcement of existing fair housing laws already on the books. If Portland wants to help people with disabilities find accessible housing, it should complete a clearinghouse of available accessible units. There are things the city can do to further these goals, but this careless proposal is not one of them.