City grapples with tenant rights after ‘unprecedented’ mass eviction

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling (BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett)

City officials have bought tenants affected by a mass eviction in the Parkside neighborhood more time to find new housing.

But with a well-publicized housing shortage continuing to nag Portland, the clock is ticking for those same city officials to come up with a plan to avoid future crises like this one.

In a news conference at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Ethan Strimling announced that he’d spoken to the landlord in charge of the 24 Grant Street rental units being abruptly cleared out, presumably to make way for wealthier tenants.

Strimling said John Le, managing director of property owner AEG Holdings, agreed to step back from the hard March 1 deadline he’d previously given tenants to move out by.

They still have to move out, but now there’s no firm date by which the buildings at 61-69 Grant St. must be vacated, with Le pledging to give the city and tenants what Strimling called a “reasonable amount of time” to make other arrangements.

Randy Billings of the Portland Press Herald was the first to report on the Grant Street evictions in a story published Tuesday.

Those affected are at-will tenants, meaning they hadn’t signed binding longer term leases. Many of them were low-income renters and about half were clients of Shalom House, a local organization that helps mental health patients secure and pay for housing, according to that group’s housing director, Norman Maze.

“We very much appreciate [Le’s] willingness to be flexible on that deadline,” the mayor said.

The reason the city is thanking the landlord for being flexible is that he legally doesn’t have to be. This is, at its base, a case where the mayor asked for a favor, and got it.

In the future, Strimling suggested he’d like to be having that conversation from a place of more leverage, and that would take some changes to the rulebook.

“If the rules say it’s OK to evict folks without cause in the middle of the winter without offering any assistance, maybe it’s time to look at those rules,” the mayor said.

In Portland, a landlord must give at-will tenants 30 days notice they’re being evicted without cause.

Strimling said many communities require landlords to provide more notice or to offer financial help to those displaced tenants, and said in light of the Grant Street eviction, the City Council’s Housing Committee, led by councilor Jill Duson, may start to take a hard look at tenant safety nets like those.

“Too much of this kind of housing is floating under the radar for us,” Duson said at Wednesday afternoon’s news conference.

Another thing Strimling said is “on the list of suggestions” is the establishment of a tenant ombudsman position, someone to proactively advocate for tenants’ rights in a city where landlords — in part because of the current market — have most of the power.

Of the 24 units in question, Strimling said Wednesday 20 were occupied at the time of the eviction notice. He said he wasn’t sure how many people overall have been displaced in the eviction, but city Department of Housing and Human Services Director Dawn Stiles said her staff and their Shalom House counterparts are currently working to find homes for 14 tenants still in need.

Those advocates are trying to cobble together federal and state grant money to help the displaced residents pay some of the costs associated with finding new housing, such as application fees and up-front deposits.

Duson said her committee may also use this approach as the model for some kind of “rapid response” program, which would offer financial and placement help for renters who are abruptly displaced, not unlike what the state Department of Labor does for workers in the aftermath of a significant business closure.

Maze acknowledged that no-cause eviction of at-will tenants in Portland is not unheard of, especially as near-zero vacancy rates and steep demand motivate landlords to fix up properties and market to the highest paying renters they can.

But usually, Maze suggested, it’s a case of a few units here and a few units there.

What makes the Grant Street case one that forces city leaders to sit up and take notice, he said, is its scale.

“This number of units is unprecedented,” Maze said.

It’s perhaps worth noting that this is the second wave of tenants’ rights work the city has entered into in recent years. In response to a deadly fire at a poorly maintained multi-unit building on Noyes Street in 2014, the city implemented a series of measures aimed at holding landlords more accountable for keeping their buildings safe for tenants.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.