Seemingly uninterested in philosophizing on any downsides to rent control and impatient for caps and limits designed to help embattled renters citywide, Portland voters this week came down 61% in favor of the ballot question to increase tenant protections.

Question C, the only citizen-generated question of five to pass, was also the only ballot question result that deviated from the conclusions published by the editorial board of this newspaper in the middle of October.

Recommending a “no” vote on C for reasons to do with its untailored application of strengthened rent control, as well as rent control’s capacity to drive scarcity by discouraging landlords and would-be landlords and putting present tenants above future tenants, we wrote:

“The rent control aspect of the question – an increase on a fairly sound limit – strikes us as incompatible with the supercharged nature of Portland’s economy and the potential for volatility that requires flexibility over the next five years. We’re also mindful that rent control can prioritize people who already have housing over those who have yet to secure it, hurting supply.”

The board did, however, acknowledge its unreserved support for elements of the ordinance that will work as intended: rental application fees, suffered by unsuccessful applicants as well as successful, are to be eliminated. Two-month security deposits are to be cut in half. Notice periods for rental increases will jump from 75 to 90 days.

The effect the far more broad rent control element will have – on the rate of building (one guaranteed way out of this crisis) or on small-time landlords’ ability to recoup property tax or inflated operating costs  – remains to be seen.


Although the vote for C can be traced easily back to the fact that the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in Portland now rivals that of Honolulu, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the scope and severity of Portland’s affordable housing challenge drove the electorate to an “anything is better than nothing” response when it comes to regulating the places we live. Neither Questions A nor B, frequently conflated and misunderstood proposals to restrict the short-term rental market, for example, proved convincing enough to pass.

It’s hard not to be impressed by what appears to be item-by-item consideration by the people of Portland of the whopping 13 questions put before them in recent weeks. In a political environment more animated by fear and anxiety than many of us can remember, the bulk of campaigning from “both sides” assumed all-or-nothing positions on the ballot.

Calls for only “yes” or “no” votes on every last measure did those measures a disservice. We can agree that 13 questions is too many, too disparate and that the – justifiably unpopular – process that brought us to 13 is one we’d rather not relive.

But once the electorate is faced with these questions, it’s antidemocratic to campaign for them to be treated as either panacea or plague; to imply (or insist!) that their individual differences, merits and demerits should be ignored on principle.

If the recommendations of the city’s most vocal campaigners on both citizen and Charter Commission questions were to have been faithfully followed, the outcome in Portland this week would have looked much different than it does. We know the truth of the matter all too well: The lack of affordable housing is and has been of utmost concern to Portlanders who are simultaneously maddened and troubled by the way things are going. No matter what happens next, the vote for Question C gives voice to that.

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