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Portland’s Rental Crisis Created an Opening for Democratic Socialist Candidates

As rents soar in Oregon, democratic socialist candidates are gaining traction with progressive housing agendas.

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is closed among empty city streets during the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

When tenant activist Margot Black had her first “no-cause” eviction in which she was forced out of her apartment simply because she was not bound by a lease, she was 19 and a single mother of a 6-month-old daughter. When she saw her second no-cause eviction in 2012, Portland, Oregon, was an even less hospitable place. Housing prices had soared as tech jobs came in, and Portland was branded as the next hip place for urban professionals to relocate to — making the city increasingly unlivable for working-class residents.

“It was such a humiliating, confusing and alienating experience,” Black told Truthout about her evictions, which motivated her to connect with other renters on Facebook and look for an outlet to start pushing back on the property management industry.

Black, a former math teacher at a local college, was drowning in debt and the city’s climbing housing costs. When a series of housing organizations began holding town halls, she attended, connecting with other struggling renters. This led to the creation of Portland Tenants United (PTU), which began organizing against evictions in specific housing units in 2016. The rapidly growing housing union is already proving that it can punch above its weight to change the conversation around renting in the city.

Portland, and subsequently most of Oregon, is facing the same growing pains that most West Coast urban centers have experienced as tech start-ups move in. The city’s skyrocketing cost of living has left low-income renters in Portland with few options, since median rents have risen by 30 percent since 2011. As of February 2020, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Portland was $1,453, according to Rent Jungle. Such prices, however, continue to steadily trend upward in a city increasingly defined by high-priced, short-term leases demanded by tech contractors. Moreover, working-class areas and communities of color have been hit especially hard by the wave of gentrification, including Portland’s now trendy northeastern corner, which used to house historically Black neighborhoods. Tech incubators and an ongoing development gold rush — all ironically building a brand on the city’s success in becoming a progressive cultural space — are at fault.

Campaigning on Housing

Housing has increasingly become a decisive issue for urban voters who are being priced out of their homes, often with little recourse. As the city’s Democratic Party-dominated political machine fails to act, the issue has provided an opening for a slate of democratic socialist candidates, some of whom have been backed by PTU or the city’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

As tenants continue to lose their employment amid the COVID-19-induced economic recession and struggle to pay rent, the desperation that many of the city’s residents are feeling is lending support to PTU and candidates’ claims that a bolder intervention, potentially including a rent strike, is necessary.

“PTU is first and foremost a militant tenants’ union, in that we take our political analysis, collective action and the concept of solidarity very seriously. We engage in legislative advocacy, very effectively, but as a tactic, not as a theory of change,” Black says. “We’ve also supported electoral campaigns when the candidate’s platform adopts our demands, and we strategically intervene during election season to ensure that housing and tenants’ rights issues are a banner issue with bold demands.”

When Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish passed away in January 2020, Black launched a publicly financed campaign for his spot, centering housing as a defining issue. “Given the unique timing and political moment, especially with [then-presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders] gaining momentum ahead of big primary wins, it felt like public consciousness — especially in Portland — was ready for an open socialist championing real rent control, unions for all and [taxing] the rich,” Black says.

In 2016, PTU supported left populist candidate Chloe Eudaly to unseat Democratic incumbent Steve Novick in the Portland City Council — a party favorite who many believed was going to win handily. Eudaly had been organizing with PTU to reverse the state’s ban on rent control and put restrictions on no-cause evictions. The campaigns were successful: The Oregon Legislature passed a moderate rent-control bill in 2019, and Portland enacted no-cause eviction restrictions and requirements for providing relocation assistance for renters in 2018. While activists were disappointed with what they said were watered-down results in these measures, they still would have been unthinkable in the state’s landlord-friendly corners just a few years ago. Eudaly won over her opponents in a tight runoff and helped to push the landlord protections at the city level, and now is being challenged for her council seat by Sam Adams, Portland’s former mayor and a politician who many landlords and business owners count as a friend.

Likewise, DSA member Paige Kreisman is running in the heart of Portland’s inner city for Oregon House District 42 on a progressive platform to the left of incumbent Rob Nosse — using housing as a part of what defines her campaign. Kreisman is one of only two candidates formally endorsed by Portland’s DSA chapter, the other being Albert Lee who is running for Oregon’s 3rd District in Congress. Kreisman was enlisted in the Army, and was personally affected by President Trump’s ban on transgender servicemembers as a trans woman. She left the Army, moved to Portland and started organizing with PTU, eventually joining the organization’s board and working as a policy adviser.

“We have a political climate that is dominated by the same corporate interests who are exploiting our basic human need for shelter in the name of endless profits. Addressing the housing crisis starts by taking the landlord, developer and realtor-lobby-backed politicians out of the driving seat,” Kreisman says. “Tenant unions across the state play a major role. Just as labor unions are the manifestation of democratic worker power, tenant unions are the manifestation of democratic renter’s power. To address the housing crisis, we have to build a movement, and tenant unions are the basic building block of that movement.”

Kreisman has lined up an impressive array of political endorsements, particularly of public employee unions critical to Oregon’s Democratic Party politics. This has come largely because her incumbent challenger, Nosse, voted to cut public employee retirement benefits along with several other Democrats during the state’s 2019 legislative session. Many of these unions refused to back any politician who participated in that vote, and this, coupled with Kreisman’s strong position on housing, has helped her to gain traction.

“[The state legislature’s] actions and decisions have, for far too long, been dictated by this state’s corporations and wealthiest residents, with no real opposition despite a Democrat supermajority,” says Portland DSA Co-Chair Olivia Katbi Smith about why the chapter is working to support Kreisman’s campaign. “We have seen the way Democrats in this state will not hesitate to throw workers under the bus in order to preserve the status quo and push more austerity budgets.”

Meanwhile, Portland’s mayoral contest may end up even more heated, as current Mayor Ted Wheeler is increasingly coming under fire for how he has managed the city throughout its perpetual housing crisis. In 2016, Sarah Iannarone ran to Wheeler’s left, but lost the race after local media focused on an arrest from her distant past instead of her progressive policy platform. She is running to unseat Wheeler again this year, emphasizing how the city’s housing crisis has created a question of electability.

“When you boil it down, I am driven by my faith in the power of community, and the current mayor responds to grassroots power as a threat rather than an asset in the challenges our city is facing, especially climate chaos, lack of affordable housing and rising inequality,” Iannarone told Truthout.

Portland voters approved a tax to raise $258.4 million to invest in 1,300 units of affordable housing in November 2016, yet under Wheeler’s leadership, Iannarone says only a small fraction of those units have actually become available. (At the time of publication, Wheeler’s office did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.) The units are just a tiny piece of what many housing advocates say is needed to start truly confronting the problem. This situation has only gotten more dire in the wake of the coronavirus layoffs and the impending economic recession that means that the specter of unpayable rents will linger in the city long after business returns to near normal.

“I see it as a mayor’s job to protect human health and safety — especially of the most vulnerable — by whatever means possible. If that means displacing the burden up the food chain off the backs of local renters onto the financier class, then we should commit to that course, acknowledge our uncertainty in the moment, and fight for the suspension of rent for our residential and commercial tenants for as long as is needed,” says Iannarone.

One of the foundations of Iannarone’s campaign is a plan she is calling “Housing for All,” an in-depth series of policy proposals including a five-year plan to end the “housing state of emergency,” including open support for tenant union organizing, an anti-displacement program and a massive increase in affordable housing.

“This status quo is unsustainable, and Portlanders deserve better: Our crisis demands a more collaborative, community-based approach to housing all Portlanders,” Iannarone says. “People are hurting. People are sick of being told things are getting better, of being shown statistics to show how successful centrists have been in alleviating the burdens of unfettered capitalism. People are sick of voting for something and then never feeling the results.”

Pushing the State Left

As organizing around housing ramped up across Oregon in 2016, a renter protection bill went before the Oregon State Legislature with five renter protection measures, a piece of legislation that was separate from the Portland-specific measures. Tenant activist and commissioner candidate Black, alongside PTU, lobbied for the bill and watched as Republicans and Democrats, including landlord Rod Monroe, stripped three of those measures out of the bill.

“The housing-hero-Dems didn’t fight to make the bill stronger, fought our attempts to get a hearing on another bill that would have lifted the local ban on rent control, and signaled very strongly after the hasty passage of the bill that they were done with tenants’ rights for the foreseeable future,” Black said about a subsequent 2019 bill. “They bruised their backs with all the back-patting after its passage, swore that it was ‘just the first step,’ and [would] keep working to make it stronger, and then promptly stopped talking about it.”

PTU joined the fight to unseat Monroe in his District 24 primary that year, fought to get another tenant bill through the legislature, and now believe the time is right to start to push for candidates who will act as allies with bolder tenant support solutions. Black hopes that her message of a complete overhaul of the housing system in the city will resonate with voters and mobilize a volunteer base even as she lacks many of the endorsements and financial backing that many Democratic Party favorites have.

“For decades, the Democratic Party has veered to the right — to the point where they are virtually indistinguishable from Republicans on a host of economic issues and increasingly social issues,” Black says. “We have a chance with voters because we’re part of a movement, and renters know that we are the campaign putting forth bold solutions to actually address the crisis they’re experiencing in material and impactful ways, not by just throwing more money at developers.”

DSA is not just organizing in Oregon. The organization has been instrumental in making housing a priority across the country, particularly around tenant organizing in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In North Dakota, the Red River Valley DSA is making tenant support a priority and demanding the state release an executive order forgiving back rent. Some New York City tenants are considering a rent strike connected with the local DSA branch for organizing support. Now that local municipalities are urging renter protections amid the coronavirus layoffs, such as the Denver City Council’s calls for a rent freeze, the DSA has a potentially bigger role to play in mobilizing its base in local elections. With rents being one of the most biting features of the pandemic, this could mean that DSA has a nationwide advantage in speaking to young people and pushing local elections to the left.