Thursday, August 1, 2019

$60 Per Unit Fee Will Go to Second Reading before City Council

At yesterday's City Council meeting, Mayor Wheeler presented a plan developed in conjunction with the Housing Bureau that would assess a $60 per unit fee on rental housing in the City of Portland in order to fund the Rental Services Office. The $60 per unit fee is designed to rise with inflation, as well as additional program costs as needed. The Mayor, Shannon Callahan, and a number of people who gave testimony acknowledged that in the future significantly more funding will be needed in order to build the expanded rental registration system. If it passes, the fee will be due with taxes in April 2020 - it is retroactive, with the effective date set at January 1, 2019.

Callahan explained to the Commissioners that the fee would be used to fund the Rental Services Office. Among the office's plans for the next few years are a mediation services pilot, expanded education and training services, and enhanced data collection. The office intends to provide more streamlined support for renters.

Commissioner Fritz asked for clarification on the rules for exemption from the fee - she inquired as to whether the Housing Bureau considered tying the fee to the rent a unit charges rather than to whether it is a specifically regulated affordable unit. According to Callahan, there is no way to know what market rents are without the data collection system the city hopes to set up within the next few years. Fritz also wanted to know if mobile home parks, where rents are some of the lowest in the city, would be exempted. Matthew Tschabold, equity manager of the Housing Bureau, confirmed that mobile home parks are considered rental dwellings and would not be exempt from this fee.

Tschabold indicated that the "stick" to get landlords to comply with the registration system is a civil penalty that under local law can be up to $500. While he does not believe that a $500 fee would be imposed for landlords who fail to pay a $60 fine, he acknowledged there could be be some cases where a person may have a number of outstanding fees, in which case a higher fine might be warranted. Commissioner Fish suggested that the Council and Housing Department iron out an appropriate penalty for noncompliance.

During the public testimony portion of the hearing, twelve people spoke - six in favor, and six against. The first person to speak was a landlord who explained that the cost would likely end up getting passed to renters. He also read from an email between a friend of his and an unnamed member of City Council, in which the City Council member agreed that they too would be inclined to raise rents due to the fee. Commissioner Fish interrupted him for a polite back and forth in which the Commissioner asked that if any of his words or actions worked to "demonize" landlords, he would like to be directly called out on it. Commissioner Eudaly agreed that it is not her intent to demonize landlords. The broker and apartment owner who testified directly after pointed out that 90% of the Rental Services Office's activities support tenants, but the cost burden is being pushed on to landlords.

Other property owners who testified against the fee pointed out that while on its own would not be unreasonable, in conjunction with other legislation recently passed at the local and state level it represents a last straw. Landlords are already spending money on legal advice in order to implement the new tenant screening and security deposit ordinances, as well as relocation fees required by the city and state. Chris Nguyen of Commerce Properties argued that the confluence of extra costs are reducing funds available for unit maintenance.

For those who testified in favor of the law, it seemed that specific aspects of the proposed registration system will benefit tenants immensely. Nico Serra of Real Choice Initiatives shared their story of trying to find an ADA accessible unit that could accommodate their wheelchair after a bike accident. The Mayor confirmed he is working to put forward a proposal to provide accessibility and price range data as part of the enhanced rental unit registry in the Fall. Serra confirmed that this information would be incredibly beneficial to those who have struggled to find ADA compliant apartment units. Sarah Iannarone, Katrina Holland, and Margot Black all testified in support of the fee, also largely due to the benefits they believe will come from better data collection about rentals in the city.

The ordinance will now go to a second reading before the City Council. A date has not yet been set.

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