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(Photo via City of Eugene Public Meetings on YouTube)

The Eugene City Council may soon take measures to implement renter protections amid a tightening housing market in Eugene.

The council voted unanimously to direct staff to bring back more information about the feasibility and resources needed to implement renter protections consistent with the Housing Policy Board’s recommendations — which include prohibiting application and screening fees as well as restricting no-cause evictions — at a Nov. 22, 2021 work session.

The HPB acts as a forum for public input into community issues related to affordable housing, according to the city of Eugene’s website. The board is made up of two elected officials — county commissioner Joe Berney and city councilor Emily Semple — and six Lane County community members with low income representation.

Genevieve Middleton, the city’s grants manager for community development, presented the HPB’s recommendations for renter protections.

For the application stage, the HPB’s recommendations include prohibiting landlords from charging applicants rental application and screening fees, requiring landlords to process applications in the order received and prohibiting landlords from including medical or educational debt when evaluating an applicant’s income versus expenses.

For the move in/move out stage, the HPB also recommends requiring landlords distribute an education document describing SB 608, a state law from 2019 that caps the amount rent may increase each year, while also restricting no-cause evictions for tenants who have lived in their homes for one year or longer. The board also recommends limiting landlords to charging deposits with a maximum of two times the subject unit’s monthly rent.

For renters’ support services, the HPB recommends creating a rental housing navigation role, as well as increasing funding for a tenant hotline and creating additional tenant support services like accessible rental unit lists and supporting improved rental data.

To fund these services, the HPB recommends increasing the Rental Housing Code fee program, an annual fee that property owners and managers pay.

“I think these all sound very doable and make a lot of sense,” Councilor Jennifer Yeh said.

Middleton also presented statistics from the 2018 Eugene Renter’s Experience Survey with more than 850 survey responses and 120 listening session participants. Students made up 15% of participants.

71% of participants had considerable trouble during the rental application period, 35% had issues with landlords regarding fees, 38% experienced issues with landlords regarding deposits, 63% experienced issues with landlords regarding rent increases, 27% experienced a no-cause eviction and 34% had their rent increase resulting in them moving.

Middleton said the western vacancy rate —  the number of rental properties not occupied by tenants —  is 4.4%, while Eugene’s vacancy rate before the pandemic was 2.8%. However, according to data from Costar Real Estate, Eugene’s vacancy rate in 2021 is 1.6%.

“This means that Eugene’s renters have few choices, and rent is increasing due to market pressure,” Middleton said.

Some councilors expressed concerns about the recommendations. Syrett and Keating said the council may not have the authority to ban application and screening fees, and they would support a central application platform as a possible alternative.

“Some of those fees are needed for folks to actually do background checks, but I think there is an abuse of that allowance,” Syrett said.

Councilor Randy Groves said he has heard about rental agreements being brought forth to tenants that are only for 11-month increments so landlords can avoid no-cause eviction limitations.

Groves also said he is concerned these policies could affect “mom and pop” operations with one or two homes and push landlords to put their rentals on the market and sell them.

In response, Yeh said it is important to regulate small businesses that can fly under the radar. “When you only have one or two tenants, it takes a long time for people in the community to realize that you’re doing things improperly,” she said. “When you have 100 people that you’re renting to, word gets out a lot faster.”

Councilors also said they would like to hear more about creating displacement protection assistance, which requires financial support by landlords who issue a valid notice for no-cause eviction or an extreme rent increase resulting in eviction.

Ryan Moore, a volunteer with the Springfield Eugene Tenant Association, asked the council to consider displacement protection assistance during the public forum portion of a Nov. 8, 2021 city council meeting.

“This has been a long time coming,” Moore said. “There, of course, is more that needs to be done, but we're really grateful to see this move forward after all this time.”

A no-cause eviction notice must be at least 30 days before the actual date of termination, according to the Oregon State Bar.

Moore said it is unrealistic to expect a renter to be able to get rehoused in 30 days. “It's through no fault of their own,” he said. “They didn't know this was coming, and so the logical conclusion when a lot of these people cannot get rehoused within 30 days is that they are being pushed into homelessness.”

No-cause evictions are widespread, and his organization sees them happening in almost every local neighborhood, Moore said.

The city council has not yet scheduled a work session to discuss the renter protections further.