Portland Tenants United Leads a New Call for Organizing Against Evictions and Displacement


Shane Burley I Urban Issues I Commentary I February 2nd, 2016



"There's no such thing as "no cause" when it comes to a no-cause eviction," said Rosalie Nowak, a Portland renter telling a crowd of hundreds about being evicted only a month after moving in. "There's always a cause. A reason. It's that you, as a renter, have no right to know what the hell is going on. In that case, we as tenants have less rights than someone who is taken to jail. At least they are entitled to know what they are being held for."

During the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday holiday, cities around the country used it as an opportunity to build on Dr. King's legacy for racial and economic justice. For renters in Portland, Oregon, this meant driving at part of social life that has become scarcely sustainable in recent years: housing. In Portland, like in many other "hip" urban areas like San Francisco's Mission District or Brooklyn in New York, the cost of living has skyrocketed as tech and creative class jobs move in and developers force old communities out. This has caused what local housing non-profit the Community Alliance of Tenants has labeled a "Renter S.O.S.," with a recent Zillow study putting the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment at over $1,500. To find the city affordable according to HUD guidelines, this would mean residents would need to make more than $16.00/hr, while the minimum wage remains at only $9.25.

This rental crisis, which has reshaped many urban enclaves through gentrification, has been one of the sparks that has caused a near uprising among the city's most targeted communities. In Portland, the recent Renter's Assemblies, which brought together community organizations and tenants to tell stories of hardship and displacement, gave way to a new call for citywide unionization. That gave birth to Portland Tenants United (PTU), a new project that organized this rally along with organizations like Don't Shoot PDX, the VOZ Worker's Rights Education Project, and the homeless-empowerment project, Right to Dream Too. Looking at how discrimination and retaliation both victimize the most oppressed populations in the city and rob renters of their voice, the rally and march brought together hundreds of people from unions and coalitions from around the city.

Speakers brought together disparate issues, from the crippling effects of racial and heteronormative discrimination to the lived experiences of seniors and people on fixed incomes trying to make ends meet when their rent is suddenly doubled.

"If we keep paying it, they'll keep charging it," declared Marih Alyn-Claire with a strength that empowered those around her. Marih has been living on disability for over twenty-years after a traumatic brain injury, and she recently caught wind that her rent was going to increase by almost fifty-percent. This would put it above what her Section 8 vouchers would be able to pay, and with very little left over after bills every month she would be unable to pay the difference. The quest to find another place could leave her homeless before finding something affordable, as was seen recently the housing authority, Home Forward, opened up for applications for new affordable units in the city. They were bogged with 21,000 applications in only ten days, which meant that they had to lottery out 3,000 and leave the remaining 18,000 to the market.

The solution that Portland Tenants United is coming with, which is drawn from inspiration of movements from around the country like Buffalo Tenants United and the San Francisco Tenants Union, is to create a campaign that puts the power back in the tenant's hands. Just as workers can have a union in their workplaces, tenants should have the same power of collective action, and bargaining, in their homes.

"Direct action gets the goods," says JC Sinn, organizer with the Portland IWW who drew the connection between directly confronting bosses in workplaces and directly halting evictions in apartment complexes. "While we may stand here right now on the steps of City Hall, the people who really have the power to end this housing crisis, to stop the profiteering landlords, the skyrocketing rents, the no-cause evictions…They're not in that building. They're not in Salem. They're not in Washington D.C. They're right here. "

Direct action has been the foundational principle of this erupting tenants movement, which can build on many of the lessons of the early labor movement while not being beholden to many of the organizational structures that unions have to work with today. This was the foundation of PTU's victory only a week before, where they confronted the pending eviction of a disabled 73-year-old tenant who was being evicted from his apartment of over thirty years. As PTU organizer Margot Black said in press statements at the time, ""It shouldn't take this sort of all volunteer effort to keep a 73-year-old man in his home who should never have gotten a no-cause eviction in the first place."

PTU organized a rally to confront the landlord only days after hearing about the situation, and just the pressure of the impending community action got him to permanently cancel the eviction to stay in his home. The attorneys involved had literally never seen this kind of reversal happen before, yet it is exactly this type of community power that will serve the foundation of PTU and other community tenant organizations.

After the rally, protesters overwhelmed Portland's business district, taking over the streets and delivering "letters of protest" to prominent property management companies and the County Courthouse. These letters, modeled on Martin Luther's 95 Thesis, were taped to each location, declaring that the community has found them in violation of renter's rights for exorbitant rent hikes, the displacement of communities of color, and for robbing tenants of their voice. Through the flurry of cameras, Austin Rose of PTU read the final clause of this housing thesis with a boom that could be heard by onlookers inside. "If you fail to remedy these violations of our dignity and security immediately, we will take further action to ensure an eviction and discrimination free 2016!"

PTU is calling the public to get further involved in building this tenants movement by coming out to their January 30th event at Lucky Lab, which will begin the ongoing organizing drive that will be established around the city this year. Part of this will be coordinating more between cities in similar circumstances, but also keeping renters in the drivers seat at all levels. As one of the founding members of PTU, Rosalie is committed to staying involved.

"It's the tenant who bears all the burden of an unexpected move," she says, talking about the endemic of no-cause evictions sweeping Portland. "No-cause eviction is a form of bullying that is sanctioned by the state of Oregon. It's hard to fight back against a bully. It's expensive. It's time consuming. People lose heart. People leave town. It's usually a losing proposition, unless we as tenants stand together. We have each other."