April 28, 2015 – “Imagining a City Where Renters & Property Owners Enjoy Fully Equal Rights Under Law”

Paul Cienfuegos’ April 28th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News

(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes.)

Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.

As listeners surely already know, Portland is fast becoming an unaffordable place for many of us to live. The latest attempt to do something about it is called the Portland Renters Assembly, which the organizers define as “a gathering of people united by the burden of rent”. I am excited that renters are getting themselves organized, but as with so many examples of emergency response activism, I am skeptical that their current work will bear fruit unless they identify and then directly confront the institutional causes of this problem.

As they state in their public documents, “There is a need to stand behind those facing foreclosure, eviction, renoviction, houselessness, and rents rising well beyond livability. … The Assemblies discuss the collective strategies to fight back against the exploitation of the human need for housing.” I couldn’t agree more, but how we stand with each other as disenfranchised people, and what collective strategies we choose to explore are a very important issue to figure out, if we don’t wish to waste everybody’s time.

I’d like to take a crack right now at reframing what the problem is. Here goes…

Fact #1: A large percentage of Portland residents are tenants with very few legal rights protecting us from eviction or substantial hikes in our rent. A very very small number of people and corporations – some local but many not – own all of the rental housing in Portland.

Questions we need to discuss among ourselves regarding Fact #1:
* Why do We – the majority of Portland residents – continue to allow a small number of individuals and corporations to own so much real estate here in Portland?
* And what are the structures of law that make this disparity virtually inevitable?

Fact #2: Home and apartment rental owners have vastly more constitutionally protected rights than do non-property owners – namely they have property rights. In other words, those with property are protected by our current US Constitution, while those who do not own property have no relevant Constitutional rights. In our country and in our current US Constitution, property rights trump all other rights.

Questions we need to discuss regarding Fact #2:
* Why do We – the majority of Portland residents – continue to allow property rights to trump all other rights?
* Why do We allow corporate owners of property to possess any constitutional “rights” at all when we all know that it’s ridiculous that corporations are allowed to exercise constitutional “rights”?
* Is it conceivable that We cannot get our rights as tenants fully recognized and enforced until we also tackle these historical realities?
* Can we begin to imagine what a new set of local and state laws might look like where renters and owners would enjoy fully equal rights under law?

Fact #3: It is currently illegal in the state of Oregon – and many other states – for local governments to pass rent control laws.

Questions we need to discuss regarding Fact #3:
* Why do We – the majority of Portland residents – continue to allow the state of Oregon to preempt and thus violate our inherent right of self-government as enshrined by our state constitution, which states “that all power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their peace, safety, and happiness; and they have at all times a right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.”
* If all power is, indeed, inherent in the people, why are we not exercising this power?

I would argue that until we are having this larger conversation, we’re not ready to mobilize ourselves as tenants.

Yes, it is a wonderful and very valuable thing for we who are renters to gather together to share our stories about the “burden of rent”. It’s wonderful for us to learn how to act in solidarity with each other to try to envision how we can unburden ourselves from this economic disparity of the 1% vs the rest of us. But let’s please think bigger and bolder than simply creating yet another activist group of disenfranchised people signing petitions and marching and rallying and picketing and getting angry and making demands and trying to stop no-cause evictions one at a time endlessly into the future. We can do better than that! We really can.

Imagine instead We the majority of Portland residents working together in solidarity to envision a series of Portland ballot initiatives that take back our inherent right of self-government. Specifically, these ballot initiatives could prohibit no-cause evictions; they could strip property owners of any superior rights to those rights held by non-property owning residents; they could prohibit banks from foreclosing on homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgages; they could guarantee to all Portland residents the right to have a roof over their heads. These are the sorts of ordinances that we could pass locally by using the strategic framework of the Community Rights model of local enforceable law-making.

When our state government tells us that we are prohibited from protecting the health and welfare of local renters, the government’s position is illegitimate. When governments deny rights to people, those governments themselves become illegitimate, and it’s then our responsibility as citizens to alter, reform, or abolish our government in such manner as we may think proper. These are our inherent rights as We the People of Oregon, and it’s about time we started to use them. Yes, it’s true, we barely know what these words mean anymore, so we’ve got a lot of community education that we’re going to have to do together. But quite frankly, we have no time to waste. The situation is urgent.

You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.

You can subscribe to my weekly podcast via I-Tunes or at CommunityRightsPDX.org. You can follow me on twitter at CienfuegosPaul. You can sign up for my newsletter at PaulCienfuegos.com. THANKS FOR LISTENING! And remember: WE are the people we’ve been WAITING for!