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Only statutory repeal can address affordable housing and homelessness

The 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the powers not given to the federal government are the exclusive domain of the states. It is referred to as “states’ rights”. This principle of government should equally apply to the citizens of each state, more specifically counties and municipalities.

Here in Oregon affordable housing and how it contributes to the burgeoning homeless population is at a crisis level. A piece of the puzzle in addressing these multifaceted societal scourges should be preventive not reactive. We must find a way to slow down where the homeless are coming from. We must stave off the problem and one such way is, as most concur, affordable housing.

One piece of the puzzle that logically helps address affordable housing and curtails landlord abuses and greed, is simple: abolish the local rent control prohibition law, ORS 91.225, by way of referendum. This statute reads in relevant part, “(1) The Legislative Assembly finds that there is a social and economic need to insure an adequate supply of affordable housing for Oregonians. The Legislative Assembly also finds that the imposition of general restrictions on housing rents will disrupt an orderly housing market. ... Therefore, the Legislative Assembly declares that the imposition of rent control on housing in the State of Oregon is a matter of statewide concern. (2) A city or county shall not enact any ordinance or resolution which controls the rent that may be charged for the rental of any dwelling unit.”

Oregon is the first state in our nation to enact statewide rent-control, that being Senate Bill 608. Although a noble attempt, it has hurt those it was intended to help. Half of Medford’s population rent and it should have the right to address this problem as it exists uniquely in this community.

ORS 91.225 was enacted 34 years ago, in 1985. Times have changed drastically since then. When the state legislated in 2019 a 7% cap on annual rent-control plus the now 3.3% Consumer Price Index the de facto result was a 10.3% increase. This goes beyond being harmful for low-income households such as seniors, the disabled, single-parent families, and young adults. What Salem did was enrich the pockets of landlords and harm many citizens, making things much worse than it was before this detrimental law was enacted.

There is a solution. It will express the long-cherished principle of our great nation. It is called “the will of the people”. Oregon has a tradition of utilizing referendums/initiatives to address mistakes made in Salem. Undertaking a veto referendum effort to repeal ORS 91.225 is what is called for. Let the citizens speak by way of their vote, removing it from the self-interests of politicians (many are landlords), special interest groups and lobbyists who were behind SB 608.

It will take petition signatures statewide of 75,000+ registered voters to allow the people to speak out on next year’s ballot. This is doable. It can only be successful if counties and cities take a stand supporting such an endeavor.

Medford’s City Council and the Jackson County Commissioners must each issue a proclamation of support for the rights of counties and municipalities to deal with the housing crisis as best fits this community.

The logistics for such an undertaking is not insurmountable. There exist many activist groups throughout the state, those who have pushed for rent-control in their communities. A grassroots army can grow from such a pool of those zealous about addressing homelessness and reasonable rent-control. A statewide movement could arise and the 2020 ballot would give citizens the opportunity to repeal a law that no longer effectively serves the best interests of the vast majority of people; that is if they have the support of local government that benefits greatly from such needed change.

James Houston of Eugene is a senior citizens advocate and a member of Citizens For Equitable Rent Control.