In a rapidly changing Portland, pushed and pulled in recent years by ballot questions brought to the electorate by petition, no proposal has received more sustained backing from the city voter than the proposal to initiate and implement a system of rent control.

It’s disappointing, then, to discover that the system isn’t playing out as intended.

A report by this newspaper Sunday collected some damning numbers in the headline: “182 complaints, 37 violations, 0 fines: Portland hasn’t penalized a single landlord since rent control took effect.”

How did we get here?

The ordinance is complex and has been revised over time. It didn’t originate with the City of Portland; it originated with citizens. It places a heavy onus for scrutiny and reporting on the tenant, the party in the worst position to take on that responsibility without also taking on personal risk. For these reasons, its results have been mixed – at best.

Those tasked with implementing the ordinance say they have taken an approach focused on communication and cooperation, not on fining. City officials have offered commitments to comply by delinquent landlords as a good outcome, and say they generally favor pursuit of voluntary compliance over enforcement.


“Our ultimate goal is seeking compliance, and so give the landlord the opportunity to comply and then we would only seek civil penalties if they weren’t complying with us,” Zachary Lenhert, the city’s licensing and housing safety manager, told the Press Herald. “We give people the benefit of the doubt until we’re able to prove otherwise.”

This rationale for letting off landlords who flout the ordinance, despite recommendations by the board created to make them that they pursue financial penalties, is pretty creative – after all, it’s an ordinance. And without enforcement, it’s an ordinance that cannot do what it was designed to do.

Those invested in its rigorous enforcement have been rightly upset by the soft touch, perhaps best summed up in the flamboyant case of Geoffrey Rice, a Portland landlord connected to at least 27 violations and never fined. Without the threat of a fine, they say, landlords can run the risk of violating the ordinance with covering back pay to tenants as the only consequence – if it ever comes to that.

A grace period is well and good, particularly where a rule is unwieldy or multipart, as this set of rules is. But we’re entering the fourth year of rent control in Portland; we should be well past those sometimes necessarily woolly or forgiving early months.

The argument in favor of securing compliance over fining also only goes so far; by its own acknowledgement, the city does not have the resources to carry out the time-intensive ordinance to the letter. The status quo is exacerbated by sustained city staffing challenges and the scores of vacant positions still lying open.

Sunday’s report made note of the addition of new city employees dedicated to overseeing rent control. Lenhert, the licensing and housing safety manager, said he was hopeful enforcement would be stronger with additional muscle. Will it? Difficult conversations already ongoing about the 2025 city budget – for the year beginning July 1 – have laid bare the challenge of covering costs.

In the short term, it’s hard to imagine that the city will step up as much as advocates of rent control wish it to, even with extra bodies. The snap appearance of intricate new policies by citizen initiative is something city government has struggled greatly to accommodate. Past efforts to reform the citizen initiative process, emphasizing the desirability of more review for better adoption, have not gotten off the ground.

This experience shows us that a win at the polls is not panacea. Portlanders are well within their rights to put pressure on the city to come good on rent control as it was voted in. We must, at the same time, be strategic, taking steps to ensure ordinance proposals are manageable from the start, leaving little room for any of the frustrating ambiguity on display here.

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