By: Tia Politi, ORHA President
October 7, 2021
I’m sad to report the passing of J. Norton Cabell, one of the most influential landlords in Oregon. Many of you may have known him during the years he served variously as President, Treasurer and Legislative Director for the Oregon Rental Housing Association (ORHA), Vice President of Lane ROA, Director of the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, Citizen Review Board Member for the Oregon Judicial Department as well as Sponsors, Inc., to name a few. More recently, he chaired the Intergovernmental Eugene Housing Policy Board and Renter’s Protection Committee. I came on the boards of Lane ROA and ORHA after Norton’s time, but he was always available to graciously answer my questions and provide expert guidance. He is the originator of the ORHA Law Book and Forms Manual.
“To whom much is given, much is expected.” Norton exemplified this saying. Born into privilege, he received a top-notch education, earning his bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of the South and his M.B.A., from the University of Virginia. He spent a couple of decades in the banking industry, before leaving that career for a life in the wonderland of Oregon.
As a landlord in Oregon, Norton rented to those who few others would have. Violet Wilson of ORHA and the Salem Rental Housing Association remembers, “I first met Norton Cabell in 1990 when I took my very first law update class. He was very knowledgeable and presented the information in an entertaining way. He peppered his talks with actual stories from his professional life. He often rented to the less fortunate population, such as former convicts. One story, in particular, still comes to mind. A man who panhandled on the streets for change and used it to pay his rent. Norton accepted daily payments from him in those small increments. I learned from him the many laws we had to follow to be a good property manager but I was also inspired by him to remember that tenants are human and we have to operate in humane and thoughtful ways.”
Jim Straub remembers, “Norton was instrumental in my sharp learning curve regard all things Chapter 90 during the 1990’s, as he was countless others. I always felt Norton brought an inquisitive and balanced view of legislative changes. He was highly respected by both landlord and tenant advocates. We have truly lost a giant in the industry.”
John VanLandingham of the Oregon Law Center was especially close to Norton and recalls, that, “We both grew up in Virginia, which is a very distinct world. Oregon is a breath of fresh air in comparison. Norton’s family name is well known there – there is a Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. A Cabell fought and died with the Virginia Military Institute cadets who fought at the Battle of New Market in the Civil War, the only college group to fight in a war. He attended a prestigious Virginia prep school – and got expelled for conducting an unauthorized chemistry experiment that blew up the lab.
“At the beginning of his post-college life, Norton spent 20 years as a banker in New Hampshire, working his way up, before he decided he’d had enough and moved to Oregon. He sometimes described himself as a recovering banker.
“He was a wonderful writer, clear and concise, and he liked writing. He wrote legislative guides on landlord/tenant law and columns in the ROA newsletter and summaries of the law. They were always excellent. He and I did all of the writing for the old General Landlord/Tenant Coalition’s bills over many years. And he wrote and published a novel (which you can buy online). We used to discuss the novel, and his revisions. It involves a recovering banker who becomes an investigative financial analyst called in over a shady real estate deal in New Hampshire. And there’s sex!
“Norton and I spent about 15 years as the primary negotiators – he for landlords/ORHA and I for tenants – in the General L/T Coalition. Those were the glory years for the coalition. We worked collaboratively and productively, amending Oregon law in many significant ways. Norton never had as a goal screwing tenants; the goal was to address a problem for landlords or tenants and work to find a reasonable solution that would not harm the other side. I can’t tell you the number of times I tell tenant lawyers in other states who have a legal problem that in Oregon we addressed that issue by statute.
“And Norton and I would usually carpool to and from those monthly coalition meetings, which were usually held in Salem. We couldn’t get too mad at each other since we would have to ride back to Eugene together. Norton knew the law backwards and forwards, and he was pragmatic, not getting emotionally involved with a case. Deborah Imse, the Executive Director of MultiFamily NW, said to me earlier this week, when I told her about Norton’s passing, that she was “just heart-broken; Norton was instrumental in my sharp learning curve regarding all things Chapter 90.”
“Norton also cared deeply about affordable housing. After he stopped being ORHA’s legislative leader, he got even more involved in affordable housing issues in Eugene and Lane County, chairing the Intergovernmental Housing Policy Board for years. He became very influential with local elected officials for his knowledge and his level-headedness. He chaired and led other public policy groups over the years, too, such as the Eugene Community Development Block Grant Advisory Committee, the Rental Housing Code Committee, the Police Review Board, and more. Because he was a long-time landlord and knew their concerns, he spoke with unequaled authority. Norton was my friend. I’ll miss him more than I can think. But his death is an even bigger loss for landlords and tenants in our community.”
Norton’s last years were spent living in one of his multi-unit properties, right alongside his residents, and that’s where his memorial service was held, with family, friends, local dignitaries and residents in attendance. He could have lived in a fancy house far away, but chose to be not just a landlord, but also a neighbor…