December 18, 2017
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Here’s a way to resolve landlord-tenant issues in Portland before they get out of hand

By Regan A. Sweeney, Special to the BDN
Updated:
Marissa Bodnar | CBS 13 | BDN
Marissa Bodnar | CBS 13 | BDN
Roxann White, center, talks to reporters, Portland Codes Enforcement Officer Chuck Fagone and Portland Fire Capt. David Petruccelli, right, outside the 188 Dartmouth St. residence where she rented space in this 2014 CBS 13 file photo. White and her landlord at the time traded accusations about who was to blame for the substandard living conditions at the site. The tenants ultimately agreed to move out, in part, because they said they couldn't afford to argue their case in court.

The growing tension between landlords and tenants in the Portland area is palpable. Pick up any local newspaper, read a local blog, scroll through your Facebook feed and you’re bound to come across discussions about “mass evictions,” the vacancy rate, housing safety, affordability or any number of issues facing the Portland rental market. As an attorney who works in this field in the Portland area, I hear from both tenants and landlords who say they’re concerned about the situation —  specifically the tenor of the discussion.

In recent weeks there have been two well-publicized cases of rental property turnovers in Portland — on Grant Street in Parkside and on Frederic Street in Libbytown — and with them came increased tensions and calls for action. Tenants, concerned about the safety and security of their housing, are calling for measures like rent control and restrictions on evictions. Landlords and developers, concerned about additional regulations, fees and restrictions, have said such measures aren’t necessary. Countless groups have weighed in on behalf of affected parties, but so far the proposals have been decidedly one-sided: either enact laws putting further restrictions on landlords, or let the market sort things out. But neither group is thrilled with these options because they require the city to take a side: either support tenants and enact restrictions on landlords, or side with landlords and developers and let the market dictate rents.

That’s why the city should form a commission to address landlord-tenant issues. Thankfully, there’s already a model out there that works.

[MORE: City grapples with tenant rights after ‘unprecedented’ displacement]

Before I moved to Portland, I lived in Montgomery County, Maryland — which is home to around 1 million people and sits just north of the Washington D.C.-Maryland border. Like Portland, many of the county’s diverse residents are renters and it’s had its fair share of housing issues.

So in the 1970s, Montgomery County established the Office of Landlord-Tenant Affairs and the Landlord-Tenant Commission. I have been before the commission, both as an attorney representing clients, and as a tenant trying to get my own security deposit returned, so I’ve seen firsthand just how effective it can be.

A big advantage of the commission is its annually published landlord-tenant handbook, which counsels cooperation and communication, sets rent increase guidelines and includes educational materials on the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords, as well as form leases and notices. More education on landlord-tenant law and issues can only help a situation like that facing Portland, and any solutions adopted need to include an educational component to ensure that everyone knows the law.

But the real heart of the commission is the forum it provides for both tenants and landlords to bring complaints. Each case is assigned an independent investigator who looks into the complaint, meets with the parties, inspects the property when necessary and works as a mediator to come to a solution. If a problem can’t be solved that way, the parties have a hearing before a commission made up of tenants and landlords from the community. The commission then renders a decision that carries the weight of a court order — it can’t be ignored and failure to abide by it can result in fines and penalties.

Either party can appeal a commission decision and take the case to the courts, but  the commission is the first stop for landlord-tenant complaints, which eases the court’s workload. And since the proceedings aren’t in a courtroom, they’re more informal and less intimidating — and attorneys are optional.

Many of the tenants and landlords I counsel in Portland often tell me that they’ve hesitated to address certain situations because they were afraid that a court case would be too expensive or risky. People often come to me when the landlord-tenant relationship has broken down and there’s nothing left to do but oversee the breakup. But a commission offers a venue to address issues before they become unfixable.

Like with any relationship, a landlord-tenant relationship often breaks down because of a number of little things, not one big one. If those little ones can be addressed promptly and informally through cooperation, most disputes can be resolved without eviction.

Portland needs a solution that works for everyone. This community belongs to all of us, whether we’re paying rent or a mortgage, and it’s up to us to work together to keep our landlord-tenant relationships healthy.

Regan A. Sweeney is a Portland attorney who practices landlord-tenant law.

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